New Trier Township offers help: Food pantry sees need grow (Wilmette Life/Sun Times News Group)

By Alan Schmidt

May 18, 2010

It's likely the last thing most residents of villages along Cook County's North Shore have on their minds is that they might have to rely someday on a food pantry.

Many who've had their sense of financial security rattled by the aftershocks of this country's high-magnitude monetary market temblor, have found themselves heading to one run by New Trier Township.

The pantry, located at the township's headquarters, 739 Elm St. in Winnetka, wasn't used widely since one was started in 1965. Most clients were older residents with little more than their Social Security checks to survive on, said New Trier Township Supervisor Patricia Cantor. Others were mothers raising their children alone.

The current recession, running since December 2007, and the real estate market meltdown that preceded it, changed everything.

Jeanne Rosser, township social services administrator, said it brought a growing number of residents from every level of the social strata to her door.

"I sometimes think of what's happened in our country as an equal opportunity economic tsunami," she said. "It's affecting people across the board."

Rosser, a licensed clinical social worker, said clients caught up in the recession early on were residents hoping to weather a short-term crisis. It usually meant one or two trips to the food pantry, and possibly some emergency aid to keep from skipping a mortgage payment and falling behind on bills.

Calls from school counselors followed, telling her of students showing signs of possible financial strain at home. Most of the kids themselves were reluctant to come forward, afraid of being looked down upon by their image-conscious peers, she said.

Rosser's office worked with school administrators and parents to ensure that as many students eligible for free or reduced lunches received them.

At New Trier Township High School, 385 Winnetka Ave. in Winnetka, only 2 percent of students relied on the federal school lunch program during 2008-09 school year -- well below the state average of 43 percent. Twice as many students were being served at New Trier during the previous school year, however, compared to a decade ago. There were roughly 65, according to the 2009 state report card, compared to around 30 in 1999.

Rosser then reached out to the students' families directly. There were cases where parents had sacrificed almost everything, pulling their children out of troubled public schools in Chicago and moving into area apartments and condominiums so their kids could attend New Trier. Some families were already teetering uncomfortably on the edge with the higher cost of living before the recession hit, she said.

Other clients saw their once-comfortable lives take a sudden turn for the worse through a number of causes, including depleted investments, job loss and layoffs. That group of clients essentially got trapped, crippled by payments on high-end homes, which lost considerable value over the past three years, Rosser said.

They can face sizable losses if forced into a short sale -- selling for less than they owe to reconcile with their lenders -- or succumb to foreclosure, she said.

A worsening trend in foreclosures, an indicator of the tough economic times people face these days, is highlighted in a report released in February by the Woodstock Institute.

Of the six villages covered by New Trier Township, Glencoe, Kenilworth, Wilmette and Winnetka are entirely within its borders. There were a total of 96 foreclosures in those four villages in 2008 and 190 in 2009 according to the report, a roughly 329 percent increase.

Most foreclosed properties in the four communities weren't even being snapped up at the bargain-basement prices offered at standard foreclosure auctions. Unsold, they end up back in the hands of the banks that hold the mortgages.

The banks essentially end up stuck with them, unless they can unload the properties in their portfolios at so-called "Real Estate Owned" auctions.

Of 35 total auctions in Glencoe, Wilmette and Winnetka -- none reported in Kenilworth -- REOs represented an average of 85 percent in 2009, according to the report. That's compared 94 percent of the 27 in the previous year.

For residents who suddenly find themselves homeless through foreclosures or evictions, there are few shelter beds available in Northern Cook and Lake counties, Rosser said, leaving shelters in Chicago as one of very few options.

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