IT WAS THE FIREFIGHTER who broke Eileen Groll Liponis’ heart.

New Hampshire Food Bank, where Liponis is executive director, has seen a huge increase in need this year. During the pandemic, the food bank has given out 1.5 million pounds of food to more than 20,000 families at mobile food pantries around the state.

At one event, Liponis was chatting with a local fireman who was helping with the food distribution. As they talked, she said, “He got a call from his wife, who had just gone through the mobile food pantry and was calling to tell him what great product was in the boxes.”

It turned out, she said, “Both he and his wife were out of work. All he had was the part-time (work) at the firehouse.”

Social service agencies

are bracing for a tough winter, as the dual health and economic crises continue to batter New Hampshire families.

Calls to a statewide helpline are up. So are requests for fuel assistance. And with unemployment benefits and rent protection programs ending, agencies report they’re seeing many new faces, as people who have never had to ask for help find themselves struggling to make ends meet.

Last year, the food bank, a program of Catholic Charities New Hampshire, distributed 14 million pounds of food to more than 400 food pantries in New Hampshire. So far this year, it has given out close to 18 million pounds, Liponis said.

At a mobile food pantry last Friday in Manchester, hundreds of vehicles lined up in the Comcast parking lot waiting to pick up food boxes.

“Unemployment, pretty universally,” is behind the need, Liponis said.

“They’re your neighbors,” she said. “These are folks that said they’ve never ever been in this situation in their lives.”

A new reality

“Bewilderment.”

That’s what Marc Cousineau from Catholic Charities New Hampshire said he sees on the faces and hears in the voices of many people who have come looking for help in this time of crisis.

Cousineau, director of Parish and Community Services for the social service agency, said the pandemic and resulting economic hardship certainly have presented new challenges for existing clients. But the double crisis also has slammed individuals and families who have not had to ask for help before, he said.

“Some of these people were contributors to nonprofit organizations because they wanted to do their part,” Cousineau said. “They have jobs, they’re working, they’re wanting to contribute.”

But since the pandemic began last March, many people have lost their jobs and businesses. Others have had to stay home to care for young children or aged parents, slashing their household income.

“For some people, this is just plain bewildering,” Cousineau said.

“It’s a new reality for them,” he said. “It’s hard to ask for help, and sometimes it’s even harder for them to know what it is they’re asking for.”

Beth Gilbert, fuel assistance director at Southern New Hampshire Services, which administers the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program for Hillsborough and Rockingham County, said she too has seen a difference in who is asking for help this year.

“We’re definitely seeing a lot more people that are first-time appliers,” she said. Many are individuals who are self-employed and have lost business because of the pandemic, she said.

“They’re basically saying they’re embarrassed they have to ask for help,” Gilbert said. “They’ve never had to before.”

But there’s no shame in applying for fuel assistance to pay for heat, Gilbert reassures them.

“Now we all have to ask for help,” she said. “We’re all in this together.”

This year, anyone enrolled in fuel assistance, which runs through April, will get an extra $200 from the CARES Act, Gilbert said. There are income limits for the program, but the state’s utility companies also have their own assistance programs for those struggling to pay their heating costs.

“We’re here to help,” Gilbert said. “And I would just encourage everyone to apply.”

Calls for help

Calls to 211 NH, a statewide information and referral program created by Granite United Way, reflect the depth of the crisis statewide.

In 2019, the call center’s 12 referral specialists handled 53,000 calls. This year, by the end of November, they had already fielded more than 108,000 calls.

The top five reasons people called 211 in November were: COVID-related questions, homelessness, substance use, housing payment assistance and help with utility bills.

These days, many callers say they are struggling to pay their bills for the first time in their lives, according to Bill Sherry, chief operating officer for Granite United Way.

“It’s a working couple with four kids and both parents were working, and now they’re trying to survive on one job,” he said. “Their choices are: Do they buy food or pay the rent? Having to forgo either one is a bad choice.”

Sherry said many people who have never had to access social services don’t even know where to look for help. “That’s where the phone call to 211 is so critical,” he said.

Joe Frappiea, senior director of 211 NH, handles some of the calls himself.

“It’s people that are in their 50s that have worked their whole life and never had to go through any of this,” he said. “Those are really hard.”

The other tough calls are from families who have lost their housing. Even though eviction protections have been in place, families with children are finding themselves priced out of the market, he said.

Frappiea said the call center’s specialists don’t ask for callers’ names, just their zip codes and ages. “I think part of the reason people don’t mind calling us is because we are an anonymous service,” he said.

The 211 NH program works with state agencies, city welfare offices, social service agencies and first responders to connect callers with available resources. Throughout the pandemic, Bill Sherry said, what has struck him is “the sheer willingness of people to help.”

No shame in asking

Leah Fiasconaro-Conway, welfare administrator for the town of Greenfield, has seen a surge of requests for help in the past month. “I attribute that to people who have depleted their savings, they’ve exhausted other resources that they’ve already accessed, and unemployment is no longer offering an extra amount for COVID relief,” she said.

One new client works in the medical field but had to take a leave of absence to care for her children. Another is self-employed and receives only minimal unemployment benefits now that the $600 supplemental federal benefit has expired.

“She couldn’t afford her mortgage and she’s got three children,” Fiasconaro-Conway said.

Another client told her: “I work, I have a good job. I’m just stuck right now.”

“And that’s what I’m seeing,” Fiasconaro-Conway said.

She works with landlords, mortgage companies and utility companies to set up payment plans for her clients who are struggling right now. She arranges to get Christmas gifts for their children from Toys for Tots.

And she stresses to clients that there’s no shame in asking for help in times like these.

“When people come in, they’re upset, they’re anxious, they’re scared,” she said. “They look at welfare as a bad thing even though it’s not.

“I try to ease their anxiety, to say it’s OK, this is what we’re here for. This does not change anything about who you are.”

Comfort on the journey

Early in the pandemic, Catholic Charities established a crisis fund to help those affected. To date, that fund has assisted 441 individuals and families.

It’s not just the money that makes a difference, Cousineau said. “It’s that accompanying someone on the journey that is actually the most valuable thing,” he said.

That seems true for “Keith,” a 50-year-old private investigator who lives in central New Hampshire.

After COVID hit, his hours were cut in half. But he makes just enough that he doesn’t qualify for unemployment benefits. So he and his wife, who has a medical condition that prevents her from working, have been struggling to make ends meet on their reduced income.

With winter approaching, they were low on propane and firewood to heat their home and short of money to pay for either. A relative suggested they call Catholic Charities.

An outreach worker at the agency found a local charity that donated wood, and then arranged through Catholic Charities' emergency assistance program to have 150 gallons of propane delivered. That one delivery, Keith said, amounted to “1,000 pounds of comfort.”

“It’s not just providing the warmth; it’s providing that sense of ‘I’m OK for now,’” he said.

When they can, he said, he and his wife intend to “pay it forward” to help someone else.

More need, more generosity

Cousineau said he has been struck by the “steadfastness” he sees in Granite Staters as the crisis wears on.

“Sometimes when there’s an emergency or a cause, you get a lot of initial enthusiasm or rallying to the cause and then it can quickly fade,” he said. “Here, something else is called for because the crisis is sustained.

“I still see people really caring.”

In 2019, the Marine Corps’ Toys for Tots program provided holiday gifts for about 30,000 children in New Hampshire. This year, Staff Sgt. Shawn Kitson of Pelham, the program’s coordinator, expects that will double.

But as the need has risen, so has the giving, Kitson said.

“The word is getting out there that people are in need, and New Hampshire people want to help out,” he said. “They want to be part of that driving force that gets 2020 in the rear-view mirror.”

Kitson has been involved with Toys for Tots for 11 years, first as a Marine Reservist in Londonderry, then in Cleveland, Ohio, and Phoenix, Ariz. He’s back in Londonderry now, running the program for Bravo Company, 125th Marines.

“I’ve always lived by that motto: Those who are blessed should bless others,” Kitson said.

“I’ve been blessed in my life with a great wife and a great little daughter. I’ve been able to serve this country for almost 15 years now. Doing this program year after year, I can give back to the community, I can give back to our country.

“Just giving those families joy, knowing they reached out to us in a time of need and I was able to provide that extra boost to get them through the holidays, it really just warms your heart,” Kitson said.

{span}For information and referrals, call 211 or 1-866-444-4211.{/span}