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Social-service agencies plead for aid

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As the economic crisis deepens, a coalition of four service providers is asking Pittsburgh City Council to step up its fight against hunger.

"How can a child learn if he or she doesn't have the appropriate type of nutrition to start out with?" asks Cecilia Jenkins, executive director of Pittsburgh Community Services, Inc.

Jenkins and others are encouraging residents to speak at a Dec. 1 city council public hearing on next year's budget, at 10 a.m. in the City-County Building (414 Grant St., Downtown). Pittsburghers can sign up to give three minutes of testimony by calling the clerk's office at 412-255-2138.

"Now is the time for people to express how this economic downturn ... affects them," Jenkins says. "If they want to be heard, now's the time to come out, so that city representatives hear loud and clear the needs of the community."

Roughly 20 percent of Pittsburghers were living below the federal poverty level at the time of the 2000 Census. The national average then was 12.4 percent.

The local coalition includes PCSI, the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, Hunger Services at the Urban League and Just Harvest. Together they are requesting an expansion of the city's "Hunger Fund," which is funded by money from federal Community Development Block Grants. Last year, the groups received a combined $332,650. This year, their requests are up to $434,800. Most of that increase is due to a higher request by PCSI: The agency is asking for $200,000 in 2009 -- up more than $76,000 from what it received the year before.

"We've already seen a surge of requests for housing support and food support," Jenkins explains. "I would say that our requests are up about 13 percent right now." And given the worsening economic outlook for 2009, "I don't know that we've seen the peak of the impact."

PCSI provides food and operational support to 13 pantries throughout the city, reaching approximately 13,500 people. Jenkins joined PCSI in 2002, and while the overall economic picture was supposedly good for the next few years, "things have been tight for as long as I've been here, as it relates to food support," she says. And now, "We're at critical levels."

Just Harvest co-director Joni Rabinowitz says she's spoken to the mayor's office and members of council -- including Council President Doug Shields -- to gauge the level of support agencies can expect.

Shields did not return a call to his office, but it's clear the city, too, is strapped -- even as agencies like Just Harvest plead with it for more aid.

"The key is going to be in the amount," Rabinowitz says. "Everybody's [said], 'Yeah, we're going to keep funding you.' ... I haven't heard anybody say, 'I'm going to work to get more.'"

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