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Keeping the Light On: As unemployment soars so does demand for energy assistance

Krieg Brooks doesn't look like he's hit bottom. A muscular Iraq vet with a firm handshake and a Red Wings cap cinched down over a



Krieg Brooks doesn't look like he's hit bottom. A muscular Iraq vet with a firm handshake and a Red Wings cap cinched down over a full head of hair, he appears younger than his 47 years. But keeping up appearances is part of the game when you're out of work and struggling just to keep the lights on.

A jack-of-all-trades who has worked in everything from construction to gourmet kitchens, Brooks got laid off from his last full-time job as a cook at Cascade Lakes Lodge in December. He's currently working two nights a week at a small resort café. But he's not bringing in nearly enough to make ends meet - $300 last month by his own account - just enough to make him ineligible for unemployment.

Social service providers say Brooks is representative of the kind of people they are increasingly finding on their doorsteps and in their lobbies - hardworking folks who have never, or rarely, been in the position of asking for assistance in their lives.

Since getting back to the United States from Iraq, Brooks exhausted the roughly $9,000 he socked away while working in a Navy construction battalion that among other things supported the Marine offensive in Fallujah.

It's not for lack of trying. Brooks said he fills out one or two job applications a day. Despite being a sports junkie he's jettisoned the cable, but kept the Internet to troll for new job listings. He keeps a cell phone at his side, ready to answer should one of the dozens of resumes he's sent out over the past few weeks get a bite from a prospective employer.

But the phone hasn't been ringing for Brooks. And the bills have continued to pile up. Last month Brooks put some of his hunting rifles in hock to keep the power and gas on after he got a 72-hour shut off notice from his utility.

Underemployed and his savings exhausted, Brooks recently turned to NeighborImpact, a local anti-poverty organization, for help. The agency, which doles out state and federal funds for emergency help with food, rent and utilities among other things, intervened on Brooks' behalf, negotiating a payment with Brooks' utility through NeighborImpact's Energy Assistance Program.

But like other private and public social assistance programs, NeighborImpact's Energy Assistance Program has been inundated with requests from growing ranks of the newly unemployed in Deschutes County, where according to state figures more than 25,000 people collected unemployment checks last month - up from just over 14,000 a year ago.

As of the end of December (January figures from the state won't be ready for another week) the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate sat at over 11 percent - the highest it's been since the collapse of the local timber industry nearly a quarter century ago. The result has been a run on social service programs from people like Brooks trying to keep the power on, the mortgage paid, or in many cases food on the table.

NeighborImpact Director Sharon Miller says plainly that it's the worst she's seen it in her more than two decades with the organization.

"The phone rings constantly and our lobbies are full constantly," Miller said.

Despite the nearly trillion-dollar Wall Street bailout and impending stimulus package, there's been no let up in demand for services.

So far this year, the Energy Assistance Program has provided support to roughly 5,100 households with about seven months remaining in the program year. By way of contrast, NeighborImpact staff helped just 5,800 households in all of 2008.

In the past few months the agency has opened offices in Crook County, another place where the impacts of the housing bust have been felt particularly hard. The county leads the region in unemployment, which hangs around 13 percent according to the recent state figures. At the same time, NeighborImpact has added two more days of office hours to its Bend location, staying open Friday and Saturday to see clients, and doubled the staff in its Redmond offices, said Colleen Neel, program manager.

Neel said she would have added more staff to meet the demand, but she ran out of space.

"I don't have a desk to put them at," she said. "I don't have the facilities."

The demand has taken its toll on the staff who are working long, stress-filled hours. In December, the organization added a free counseling hotline for its own workers. They don't know yet whether the staff is taking advantage of the outlet, but Miller said she hopes that they are.

"People work here because they want to help folks and it's really difficult when you're telling folks you can't help them," Miller said.

"When you're sitting there and somebody has got a little daughter on their lap and they've got a fever, those frontline people are there and they're trying to make it better. It's tough," she said.

Thanks to a large and unexpected boost in federal and local funding, the Energy Assistance Program is keeping the power flowing and the heat blowing for thousands of families and individuals this winter. But people seeking help with other needs are finding that the resources aren't always there and the outlook for the coming months is not good as the state weighs cuts to programs like Head Start, which provides childcare to low income parents who might otherwise not be able to work.

Last month, NeighborImpact had 340 requests for rent assistance. The agency was able to help less than a quarter of those because of limited funds.

That's due in part to the changing nature of the client base. People who until just a matter of months ago counted themselves as middle class are coming in with larger debt obligations, officials said.

"I don't think there is a person in Bend who doesn't know someone who hasn't lost a job or had hours reduced," Miller said. "So we're seeing people who never thought they would be in this situation."

Iraq war vet Brooks counts himself among those who didn't see it coming. He was in Iraq building showers and barracks for troops while stateside the economy was collapsing. He came to Bend because he liked the area and had an offer for a full-time job at Fireside Red, an upscale restaurant south of downtown.

He remembers thinking that a job at a new restaurant sounded relatively recession proof, but the restaurant which recently reopened, shut temporarily this past fall in the midst of a Bend dining and retail slump that has claimed several high end restaurants, including downtown stalwart Merenda. Brooks found work at Cascade Lakes Lodge but soon saw his hours cut as consumers buckled down on spending and business slacked. He's been scraping by since December on a mix of unemployment, rent assistance, food stamps and the meager wages he's earning at the café.

Brooks said he's recently trimmed down his resume to remove some of his work experience after hearing from prospective employers that he was overqualified. Awhile back he applied for a job as a ticket taker at the movie theater.

"I'll punch tickets; I don't care. Whatever it takes," Brooks said.

Sitting on his couch in his south-side duplex, Brooks says he doesn't want to leave Bend and he doesn't have enough money to move even if he did. He's not bitter, but he questions sometimes whether the country he has returned home to is better than the one he left.

"I came back here and the economy was gone. All the savings that you had is gone. What's the point?" Brooks said.

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