Come along with me on a journey through a side of Harbor Country I had never seen before. Perhaps you have not either. In January, I started as a caseworker with Neighbor by Neighbor, a local social service program focused on connecting people in need with social services. In this role, I have seen the hidden struggles of so many of our neighbors and found opportunities to ease their burdens. The Pokagon Fund established and has generously supported Neighbor by Neighbor.

The first people I met were chronically in need, and as I soon learned, it was not because of poor money management or buying extravagant things. One woman receives $700 per month from Social Security, and her lot rent is $500. She pays an additional $200 per month for gas, electricity and water on a budget plan. Stop and think, what is missing from her budget? There is no money for food, for clothing, for personal care items, or for maintaining her trailer. You may have met this woman; she worked as a waitress in local restaurants all her life.

In March, Neighbor by Neighbor began serving the seasonal employees who clean your homes, cook in restaurants, provide childcare, and maintain your property. This group is laid-off every October and were just hanging on until the season started again in April. As a result of the COVID shutdown, there was no season starting, and these people were desperate. They had no money for food, rent, or utilities. Neighbor by Neighbor, through our fiduciary, Harbert Community Church, asked for funding from AEP’s Heart of Cook, Berrien Community Foundation and The Pokagon Fund to help with the surge in demand. The New Buffalo Service League, Lighthouse Village, Sawyer Highlands Church, Waters Edge Church, Church of the Mediator and 89 donors also stepped up to match Neighbor by Neighbor funds. In the previous three years, Neighbor by Neighbor served 150 clients. Today we have over 400 clients.

In April, the next group calling was those who had year-round jobs in manufacturing, retail, and health care. While those on Social Security or disability and the seasonal employees knew they had to ask for help, this new group was aghast at finding themselves in need. These families had no reserves, and I wondered why. The answer came through reading the ALICE report from United Way, which indicated that 43 percent of the people in our county are asset limited, income constrained, and employed. For example, one of the families I met did not have $300 to pay for a car repair; their monthly expenses equaled their wages. While fully employed, these people are not able to pay for basics such as health care, food, utilities, mortgage or rent. Clients were calling for help applying for unemployment, food stamps, health insurance, and, for those who don’t have a bank account, their stimulus checks. In response we contracted a social service navigator who knew how to efficiently access services.

Neighbor by Neighbor has served over 430 people with rent, mortgage, utility bills, and car repair expenses. We have spent more than $25,000 in client services, and, unfortunately, it’s not nearly enough to support our neighbors in need.

While it is an honor to serve Neighbor by Neighbor, I have felt frustrated that my work is just a band-aid over a wound that will not heal, so we convened a group of thought leaders to think of bigger solutions. These are some of the ideas suggested:

• As employers, would you consider paying your employees or workers a living wage that includes their Social Security benefits and health care? If you hire seasonal workers, would you be willing to spread the same amount of pay over 12 months rather than just the months they work so that there is no huge gap during the winter? Would you offer more hours of work?

• Would you contribute to an Adopt a Neighbor program that would pay for a senior or disabled person’s expense that is above their government benefits for a year? The amount could range from $100 to $1,000 per individual.

• Would local credit unions or banks be willing to establish a retirement fund for seasonal workers that would be matched locally? If a seasonal worker left Harbor Country, they could take what they put into the fund. If they stayed until retirement, they would have the matching funds to augment their social security income.

• Before his recent death, John Krsul established the Harbor Country Work-Force Housing Committee to look at ways to provide affordable housing. One key to keeping land and housing prices down is establishing a community housing trust that joins the landowner in funding the construction and long-term ownership of properties. Would you consider lending your expertise to establishing this nonprofit, acquiring land, and building work force housing?

This has been an eye-opening journey into Harbor Country. However, I think there are good options to make Harbor Country a better place for all our neighbors. Won’t you join me in being part of the solution?

— The opinions expressed here are of the author and not of those mentioned

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