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Kane County food pantries, shelters experience overwhelming demand in wake of COVID-19

In the last year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the line of people waiting for food at the Aurora Interfaith Food Pantry grew by 400%. The Northern Illinois Food Bank served enough food to feed every person in Illinois at least two meals. And the cost of providing eggs, meat and milk grew fivefold.

People who never knew the need for a free bag of groceries showed up at the Marie Wilkinson Food Pantry for the first time, according to remarks made by the pantry’s Joseph Matty Thursday night.

“The face of hunger started to change to people who would be in a suit and tie on a Monday and Tuesday but coming into a food pantry on a Wednesday and Thursday because of the price of everything going up or a loss of a spouse’s employment.”

Matty was one of many food providers to detail their pandemic struggles to a committee of Kane County Board members Thursday. The committee will decide how to use $4 million of American Rescue Plan officials earmarked to address mental health, food insecurity and homeless before the end of the year.

While some of the demand for food assistance is slowing as COVID-19 infections shrink, the expiration of Illinois’ eviction moratorium is already intensifying the struggles at local homeless shelters.

The demand for shelter space under social distancing guidelines spurred the need to construct a 110,000 square-foot tent at the Aurora-based Hesed House. The pandemic shrank the ability to have volunteers helping with operations to zero, forcing Hesed House staff to live in the shelter themselves for up to 60 days at a time to keep the place running.

“COVID has absolutely flipped our world upside down,” said Hesed House’s Joe Jackson. “For us, COVID is nowhere near in the rearview mirror.”

More than 300 people facing eviction approached Hesed House for help in just the last couple of weeks.

Lazarus House officials in St. Charles are combating a 0.8% rental vacancy rate in the county. The sparseness of rental housing is pushing rent costs higher, shrinking an already small quantity of affordable housing units. A loss of staff from burnout is forcing shorter hours at Lazarus House’s women and children center.

Officials there joined Eileen McNamee of PADS of Elgin in asking county officials for help with funds to recruit and retain employees and hire additional caseworkers to address backlogs and the growing number of people trying to find somewhere to live with reduced means to pay for it.

“Right now, there is no affordable housing, and there is no housing that would be affordable for many of our guests,” McNamee said.

County officials heard similar skyrocketing needs for mental health counseling on Tuesday. The Thursday listening session concluded the presentations from local social service providers about their current needs.

County officials pledged to get the $4 million into their hands before the end of the year. However, the great need detailed this week created new pressure to make more of the $103 million the county will receive available to such service providers.

Discussion about how much more money the county may put toward those needs is expected after the county board approves its 2022 budget next month and has a full accounting of how much of the money it will need to address its own budget shortfalls.

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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