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Coalition raises $8.4m to help needy through winter

Despite a harsh long-range weather forecast and a looming fiscal cliff, non-profit leaders are committed to providing adequate food, heat, housing, and health care to the people of Massachusetts this winter.

Leaders of MassNeeds, a collaboration among 41 foundations and corporations, announced Tuesday that they had raised $8.4 million to get Bay Staters through the frigid season.

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“Many residents in the state are struggling to make ends meet,” said Blake Jordan, executive director of the Highland Street Foundation, a member of MassNeeds. “The economic recovery has been slow and uneven.”

MassNeeds, which provides funding to more than 150 organizations, aims to identify funding gaps, highlight the work of organizations, and inspire other do-gooders to join the effort, he said.

This year, more than 40 donors have joined forces in preparation for the winter, more than double the number of donors last season. Collaborating funders raised $3.7 million for winter needs last year.

Officials from member agencies that help people in need in various ways spoke about the coming winter’s challenges in a telephone conference call Tuesday.

Hunger is increasingly becoming a middle-class problem, said Catherine D’Amato, executive director of the Greater Boston Food Bank.

One in 11 residents of Massachusetts seeks aid from a local pantry, soup kitchen, or shelter, D’Amato said. In Eastern Massachusetts, which makes up about 75 percent of the state’s population, the number of people at risk for hunger jumps to 1 in 9, she said.

The Greater Boston Food Bank serves 545,000 people annually, but D’Amato is concerned that her staff might find it challenging to sustain that pace if the fiscal cliff cuts federal entitlements.

“Residents of the Commonwealth have to make tough choices every day to care for their families,” often choosing between paying for their food, heat, mortgage or rent, medical care, and transportation costs, D’Amato said.

It is important that her staff anticipate the federal reductions that could be coming and plan accordingly, she said. Despite the added pressure on the state’s emergency food system, D’Amato said, the food bank is committed to supporting the most vulnerable, no matter what it takes.

And then there are those who find themselves without a home.

“It’s no secret that here in Massachusetts, over the past decade or so we’ve had a serious issue surrounding housing,” said Joe Finn, executive director of the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance.

He attributed the crisis to the loss of job creation, stagnant population growth, and out-of-control housing costs.

Nearly 16,000 people were homeless in the Commonwealth Monday night, he said.

“Stable housing really impacts so many aspects of life,” Finn said. “Housing is a precondition for success.”

Finn said he is not looking for short-term solutions and hopes to stop shelters from becoming an acceptable housing niche for the poor and disabled.

He recalled meeting a 74-year-old woman who had shuffled along, living in shelters for 15 years. Once the woman was able to find stable housing, she was diagnosed with cancer, something she surely would not have been able to face while still homeless, he said.

Kathy Tobin, energy programs director for the Action for Boston Community Development, is worried that those who have homes might struggle to keep them warm this winter.

Even families that receive the maximum federal assistance for fuel funding could run out of money for heat by Christmas because of higher fuel costs and freezing temperatures, she said.

“We’re very concerned on how people will be able to get through the winter,” Tobin said.

Her team is worried that families might use unsafe measures to heat their houses. She remembered meeting a family who used a large pot of boiling water to heat their kitchen and kept the oven door open, bathing only once a week to conserve hot water.

And because cold air can linger even through the first weeks of spring, Tobin said, her team must face a tough question: Will their efforts be enough to keep the needy warm through April?

Allison Bauer, program director of health and wellness with the Boston Foundation, stressed that many families who need assistance never thought they’d be in such a situation.

“There is a new normal right now,” she said.

Working-class families on the lower end of earners who might not have their health care costs completely covered will have to make difficult decisions this winter, Bauer said.

Co-pays may be too expensive and families will be forced to decide whether that seasonal sniffle is worth getting checked, she said.

MassNeeds leaders plan to donate 75 percent of the funds by year’s end and then do a second round of allocation a few months later, Bauer said.

Melissa Werthmann can be reached at melissa.werthmann@globe.com.
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