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Community Services League sees rising demand

By Mike Genet mike.genet@examiner.net

The Community Services League’s agreement with the city of Independence to help administer federal aid for utility ratepayer assistance is just one of several ways the nonprofit’s services have been extended during the pandemic.

From identifying households to receive a portion of the $2.2 million in CARES Act funds for utility payments, to handing out more backpacks of school supplies than ever, to working with partners on more food distribution and receiving more applications for its job training program, CSL has continued to help more families than normal this summer, particularly with individual federal aid payments running out and children heading back to school.

Volunteers hand out backpacks of school supplies, shoes and socks during an Aug. 22 Community Services League event at the Community of Christ Auditorium in Independence. CSL anticipates handing out 3,000 backpacks by the end of September, about 10 to 20 percent greater than normal, and is partnering with the city of Independence for increased utility ratepayer assistance using federal funds. [David Rainey/Special to The Examiner]

“We are seeing a continuous uptick in service requests,” President/CEO Doug Cowan. “Bottom line: Families are still struggling.”

The city has partnered with CSL on utility assistance since 1978. The program with CARES funds will be more streamlined, Cowan said, as the federal aid must be spent or under contract by the end of the year. CSL refers clients to the city for assistance, and Independence Mayor Eileen Weir said this week the city has about $2 million worth of delinquent utility payments.

Applications for CARES utility assistance funds opened Thursday at cslhousing.org. Funds can be used for delinquent bills between March 1 and Aug. 31. The city says the review process will not begin until after the Labor Day holiday and may take three to four weeks weeks before approved funds get disbursed.

To help with the anticipated rush, Cowan said CSL has hired two full-time staff members at least temporarily to process utility assistance applications.

“Really, this is a continuation of (existing programs), though it’s really a unique moment in time,” Cowan said. “We were able to mobilize quickly, and we have a long legacy of partnering in this type of work. It’s work we do all year long.”

In a similar vein, Cowan said CSL and several other organizations will be working with United Way of Greater Kansas City, which received a $1.5 million allocation of Jackson County CARES funds for eviction prevention in the area.

“CSL will help administer the money in Eastern Jackson County,” Cowan said. “We’re excited about this opportunity to help keep families safely housed.”

“When a family goes homeless, that’s when it really goes downhill, and it becomes more expensive to get back into housing.”

School supply giveaways have become an annual August tradition with CSL, but this year was a little different, with school districts opting for different start dates based on their comfort levels dealing with the pandemic. 

“Usually (distributing) school supplies is a short burst, but actually we’ve been doing supplies for six to eight weeks now,” Cowan said. “With the Blue Springs office and our office in the Fort Osage area, we’re expecting a rush of requests and are prepared to help families next week.” 

In the recent Back to School Fair in Independence, about twice as many as usual signed up for donations, Cowan said. When all’s said and done, he anticipates they’ll give away all 3,000 backpacks they had available – about 10 to 20 percent higher than normal. Between the Kansas City Chiefs, Royals Charities and other donors, he said, they’re able to meet that greater demand.

“One, families are struggling,” Cowan said of the increase, “and you read study after study, not surprisingly the lowest-income Americans have been the most affected by the pandemic. Maybe they didn’t have a job that could pivot online. Also, we gave families this year the option to sign up virtually.”

Another sign of increased need: more applications for CSL’s job training program for nursing assistants and welders that started a few years ago. Whereas most applicants in prior years mainly sought a higher-paying, more stable job, Cowan said more of this year’s applicants – from 309 received thus far – have checked “unemployed” or are recent high school graduates whose previous post-secondary plans got shuttered. With money from the Truman Heartland Community Foundation, CSL came into 2020 with more resources there than ever.

“We’ve gotten to the point where we can keep these trainings rolling,” he said.

Food pantries have been a staple at CSL locations around Eastern Jackson County, and through the spring and summer the Department of Agriculture’s “Farmers to Families” program has helped groups like CSL distribute protein, dairy and fresh produce in addition to many of the usual non-perishable items.

“We’re able to expand our offerings with nutritious food,” Cowan said. “It’s taken a lot of coordination with our resources like Harvesters.

In a recent food distribution at CSL’s main Noland Road office in Independence, the line of cars at one point reportedly stretched north to U.S. 24, back west to Main Street and around that corner from U.S. 24. Volunteer groups from churches help make such events run smoothly, Cowan said. 

“The community is stepping up and saying ‘How can we help?’” he said. “Really we’re just leveraging our space. It’s really our community coming together.”