If you still have a job, the bad economy probably feels like a lump in your throat.
If, on the other hand, you don’t have a job and you can’t pay your bills, it might feel like someone is menacing your throat with a knife.
Back in the mid-1920s, a group of Chattanooga women saw the ranks of the poor growing here, a trend that was later amplified by the Great Depression. They were saddened by ramshackle housing along the Tennessee River, and they quietly gave birth to one of Chattanooga’s oldest charities, Northside Neighborhood House.
Eighty-seven years later, as the aftermath of the Great Recession continues to grind Chattanooga’s poor and middle-class families, times are hard again.
Northside Neighborhood House, which gets most of its funding from two thrift stores and a modest yearly United Way grant, provides “education, financial support and basic staples (like food, toys and clothing)” for Chattanooga families living north of the river, a territory stretching from North Shore neighborhoods to Sale Creek.
First-time requests for help at Northside Neighborhood house are up nearly 100 percent a year from prerecession levels in 2005, leaders there say.
For the most part, these are not people caught in chronic poverty but people from middle-class communities such as Hixson, Red Bank and Soddy-Daisy who have lost jobs or who have been crushed by medical expenses or home foreclosures.
Look through the case files and you’ll find:
* A laid-off electrical worker who got help paying his utility bill.
* An unemployed dad who asked for help with some Christmas toys for his son.
* An underinsured heart patient raising two grandchildren who needed his natural gas reconnected.
* A working middle-class family in bankruptcy, due to massive medical bills, slammed by a $643 utility bill.
“We have tons of people who are coming to us saying, ‘We always gave. We never thought we’d need to be on the receiving end,’” said Rachel Gammon, executive director of the social-service charity.
The organization’s yearly budget is $648,000. Most of the direct help is parceled out in small gifts of about $100 to help people pay utility bills. (They must always pay a share, too.)
Northside Neighborhood House thrift stores are located at 209 Minor St. (423-756-0530) in North Chattanooga and at 241 Signal Mountain Road (423-386-5811). Merchandise donations, gently used clothes and household items, are accepted Monday through Saturday. Call for times. To donate money, write Northside Neighborhood House, P.O. Box 4086, 221 Minor St. Chattanooga, TN 37405. Website: www.nnhouse.org.
Before the Great Recession, Gammon said, most of these folks would have gotten temporary help from friends or relatives.
“Now those family and friends are struggling, too,” she said.
Besides direct aid, Northside Neighborhood House also provides educational services, in the spirit of the founders in 1924 who didn’t just hand out quilts but, instead, taught poor women to sew.
Northside provides GED classes, and last year helped 15 people get a high-school equivalency diploma. Credit counseling is also available for people who need help managing their bills.
Thankfully, the number of people requesting first-time help appears to have reached a plateau this year, Gammon said. Many recipients of help have pledged to return as donors and volunteers when times improve, she said.
The organization’s motto is: “A hand up, not a hand out.” This is the way America is supposed to work.
Contact Mark Kennedy at email@example.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter at @TFPColumnist or on Facebook at facebook.com/MarkKennedyTFP.
Mark Kennedy is the editor of the Times Free Press opinion pages and writes the Sunday “Life Stories” column. He also writes a Saturday automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for Best Community Lifestyles four times during his tenure. Before Chattanooga’s newspapers ...