SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Right now, life is tough for Megan, 34, and her family because she cannot pay their modest monthly bills and debt is piling up as COVID-19 financial ruin plunges them deeper into debt and despair.
“We’re taking money from bills we need to pay so we can go food shopping each week,” said the mother of two teenagers and a young child and who had been laid off for a while and whose husband is also out of work.
“It’s scary to see, it’s so sad. My heart breaks and we’re all so broken and we’re trying just to get by with the skin of our teeth,” she said between tears during an interview with The Independent about her struggles and putting her pride aside to seek help.
She’s among the countless needy people in South County for whom there are no exact numbers in any report, but whose real lives are in the noose of state restrictions on the economy.
She said she didn’t want to be identified with her last name because she was embarrassed. Others like her echoed the same sentiment.
Asking for assistance to pay bills, rent and even car loans can be embarrassing and shaming, say local residents who don’t have another choice and no reserve cash behind them as life is working against them.
Yet, for those who remain mum rather than reach out, they suffer in silence and don’t get adequate help they deserve, say local clergy. Meanwhile, the continuing economic calamity worsens their problem every day.
It’s like being plugged into a high-voltage and non-stop electrical charge of stress, say those facing shortages of all kinds – food, gas for the car and clothes – while often on a futile search for help because of scarce community resources.
Except for Megan, six others declined to be interviewed, worried that even the smallest details might reveal them and their situation that has caused their self-esteem to plummet.
Refusing to simply offer spiritual solace exclusively, a local group of clergy has joined a national grassroots movement asking people help others by donating some or all of their recently-approved federal economic stimulus payments.
The money would go to assist those unable to pay for just basic necessities like food, shelter and utilities, said Rev. Jan Gregory-Charpentier, pastor of Kingston Congregational Church.
There is no firm data to show exactly the numbers of people in South County unable to make monthly bill payments or afford daily living. In addition, everyone’s situation is different, but nonetheless is devastating and the pandemic compounds already existing troubles, local officials said.
“I think people are suffering. I don’t think you can generalize from any of the indicators. The suffering we are experiencing is so individualized that it doesn’t show up in leading indicators,” said Robert Zarnetske, South Kingstown town manager.
However, one local litmus test is the Wednesday evening take-out dinner meal Peace Dale Congregational Church offers free and no questions asked.
Church officials report numbers requesting the meals have more than doubled —from 70 in early 2020 to over 170 now — after the pandemic has seeped into the fabric of the nearby communities.
“It’s just astronomical the number of people we need to service,” said Sylvia Blanda, who runs the program on a $14,000 annual budget.
Those increases mean she and the church needed a new partner to share in running the program so that even more people can be served an extra day during the week, she has said.
Other organizations helping the needy are also reporting the same thing: More people, more demand and less money to help support those on the fringe of the fraying social safety net.
Clergy Wanting to Help
With all federal approvals now given for another round of stimulus funds to eligible recipients, the newly formed South County Clergy Association saw opportunity to help.
However, the task ahead remains persuading those just planning to save the cash or use it for an unnecessary expense to instead donate some or all of their checks. The checks issued by the U.S. Treasury can range from a high of $1,200 for married couples to lower amounts.
The clergy organization has about seven members representing various denominations such as Congregational, Episcopal, Baptist and the Church of God, said the Rev. Fred Evenson of Peace Dale Congregational and organizer of the association.
Gregory-Charpentier, new pastor of Kingston Congregational, proposed the idea for the stimulus donations.
“Anyone of our neighbors sinking under the flood waters of economic struggle needs help. It affects us all,” she said.
Money donated goes directly to a separate fund administered jointly by the Jonnycake Center for Hope, a long-time local non-profit provider of assistance whose services include a food pantry, thrift shop and cash assistance for bills.
Kate Brewster, executive director, told The Independent this week that her organization is eager to work with the clergy.
“The center already has the procedures in place to vet requests and make payments to landlords, utility companies, and the like, and we will have a special web page set up exclusively for these donations,” she said.
The website for donating by credit card is jonnycakecenter.org/donations/inthistogether. Checks can also be mailed to the Jonnycake Center at 1231 Kingstown Road, Peace Dale, R.I. 02879
In their effort to spur residents to consider a donation, the clergy pointed out that the recent stimulus package was scheduled to include increased deductions for donations.
Joint filers who don’t itemize deductions on their tax returns may be able to take an above-the-line deduction for up to $600 in cash contributions to charity starting in 2021. That’s up from $300.
Taxpayers who itemize deductions on their tax returns can make a cash donation to charity and deduct up to 100% on their adjusted gross income in 2020. Lawmakers wanted to extend this to 2021.
Those interested in donating should also consult with their tax professional about advantages for the 2020 return, Evenson and Gregory-Charpentier said.
Members of the association plan to discuss this program with their congregations and in any online services they post, they said.
Rev. Robert Travis, pastor of Church of the Ascension, Wakefield, and
Chapel of St. John the Divine, Saunderstown, advised his parishioners in his weekly newsletter.
“Now, it is possible that we could simply spend that money on things that we want, and thereby do what the money is for, stimulating the economy. But as Christians we could also double that economy-stimulating effect by giving whatever we don’t need of that payment to those who do need it, in our own community,” he wrote.
“These funds will be directed toward South County residents for whom our $600 truly could make a difference between succumbing and surviving in this pandemic,” he added.
Funds donated will be specifically dedicated for this special effort by the clergy who will also direct people to the Jonnycake Center for help and will receive reports on money distributed through the special fundraising effort, Gregory-Charpentier said.
Local People In Need
In South Kingstown, with a population of just over 30,000, about 8% fall into federal poverty threshold estimates, according to Town Manager Zarnetske.
In 2020, in the United States, the poverty threshold for a single person under 65 was an annual income of $12,760 and the threshold for a family of four, including two children, was $26,200.
Mixed in with this problem of needing assistance, according to Zarnetske, are also people siphoning off their retirement savings and getting increasingly strapped by necessary expenses they cannot avoid.
He also said that in South Kingstown about one-third of households makes a total income of less than $60,000 annually.
In addition, Evenson and others pointed out a lack of affordable housing in terms or either purchase or rentals.
A Rhode Island Association of Realtors report recently indicated that properties are being scooped up in short amounts of time because of relocations to Rhode Island from out-of-state buyers.
This has created a shortage for poorer families living in low-cost winter rentals, whose prices skyrocket for the summer tourism business. Local community activists have become concerned about an affordable housing shortage for these below and just-above the poverty line.
“There isn’t a bright line. You cannot say that people making over $25,000 annually are doing okay. That’s just not true,” Zarnetske said.
He also noted that individualized circumstances worsened by a pandemic and making personal budgets collapse are evaporating jobs, reduced hours and work schedules, pay reductions, loss of health benefits, medical expenses and other changes tightening the noose on people’s economic lifelines.
However, he said, the problem at least in South Kingstown has not reached a level where town hall is being flooded with increased calls from residents who cannot pay tax bills and other municipal obligations.
But North Kingstown and Narragansett town managers Ralph Mollis and James Tierney also said they have seen greater demands for assistance as well.
“Our annual Holiday Giving Program was in greater demand this year. The N.K. Food Pantry was extremely busy all year with an emphasis on the services provided this Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Mollis said, adding that multiple private initiatives have also assisted individuals and families in need throughout the town.
Tierney said his town staff has provided thousands of meals to local residents since the pandemic began last March and many donations have been delivered to the Jonnycake Center for distribution.
South Kingstown’s Zarnetske said he believes that those most significantly affected are people who have been living on the margins of financial crisis. Yet, there are not yet any measurable statistics or studies to show the range of the problem in South County.
Many people who are struggling financially try to avoid conversations about it and that often makes the situation worse because they do not get timely help, clergy members said, noting that pastoral counseling has brought out the problem frequently in private conversations.
In addition, the clergy are hearing from community members or friends working with this unmeasured segment of the South County population struggling to put food on the table, they said.
Megan, the South Kingstown resident seeking assistance, agreed. She said that she knows personally 10 local families that are underwater financially and are mum to many about the circumstances.
“I don’t think people understand how bad people have it right now and it just breaks my heart,” she said choking back tears as she described her own situation, which includes a family health problem unrelated to COVID-19 and slashes in employment that both she and her husband have faced.
While he is still out of work, she has been able to return to two jobs to help stall the increases to the more than $4,000 in debt piling up, including $2,000 owed in back rent payments to her landlord.
He asks for whatever they can give and needs some payment each month, she said, but doesn’t threaten to throw out the family and is working with her.
“I tell him he’s like an angel. I don’t know what we’d do without him,” Megan said.
Part of the struggle involves trade-offs each month on what bills can be paid, how much and which can be delayed.
Other trade-offs include driving about 30 minutes or more to either Warwick or Westerly to a grocery store that has cheaper prices than those around South Kingstown.
“Then again, I’m also paying for gas to go there. But it’s also cheap, so I still think I getting some savings,” she added.
Before the pandemic, “it was tight, but we were making it work,” Megan said.
“We fell behind in all our bills and it was just like trying to catch up and it was just a little this month and just a little the next month,” she said about losing grip on payments and wondering what the future holds for her and her family.
“I can’t answer that question. I don’t know. How many jobs does a parent have to work to make ends meet?” she said.