Responding to demand, East Bay JFCS ramps up aid program

The rise in layoffs across the Bay Area, coupled with state and county budget crunches, has led to an increase in the number of people seeking assistance from Project Ezra.

The program, run by Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the Greater East Bay, provides emergency, short-term assistance to people in economic pinches.


Melissa Scott

Program officials say the need has doubled in the past two months as more and more people find themselves out of work, furloughed or struggling to pay their bills — and unable to get relief from tapped-out state and county agencies.


“Every month is just getting busier,” said Melissa Scott, Project Ezra’s social worker.

Up until this year, the program usually fielded 10 to 15 requests per month, and about two-thirds of those ended up being eligible for assistance.

This June, however, the agency received 33 requests for help.

“It’s very humbling to ask for help. It’s hard. I’ve seen grown men come to tears communicating how difficult it is,” Scott said. Coming to JFCS “is not what they planned for their life.”

Many Bay Area residents are feeling such a squeeze. In May of this year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 9.7 percent of Bay Area residents were unemployed — nearly double the 5.1 percent figure from May 2008.

And those statistics don’t take into account the number of underemployed individuals.

For instance, one of Project Ezra’s clients, a single mother of two children and a victim of domestic violence, has a full-time job and receives child care assistance from an East Bay county.

But without warning, the county temporarily cut off her child care assistance in April. Unable to afford child care on her own, she was in danger of losing her job.

Project Ezra provided the woman with $1,000 for two months of child care so she could continue working without interruption.

Previously, Project Ezra saw people request help after a chronic illness or lapse in mental health. But since the economic downturn, most people coming to Project Ezra need help because they’re unemployed.

Most people request help with rent, medical bills, utility payments, food assistance, car repairs or child care bills.

Emergency assistance usually ranges from $300 to $400, and has been as high as $1,300. But Scott can also connect those in need to other community resources, help them write hardship letters or decide how to prioritize their bills. She also works with them after they receive financial support to ensure they’re managing.

“We’re not just handing over money, but really holding them in a broader way,” Scott said.

The single mother of two? She reported during a recent follow-up call that she still has her full-time job and has been able to maintain self-sufficiency.

The East Bay JFCS created Project Ezra in 1994, but not until this year, when the agency received $100,000 as part of a community-wide Koret Foundation grant of $1 million, did it have a full-time employee focused solely on Project Ezra. The Jewish Community Federation and Foundation of the Greater East Bay allocated an additional $46,000 for the program. Scott was hired in March.

“If anything, I help people who are really in crisis feel like they’re not alone,” Scott said. “There’s so much negative publicity about how bad the economy is, and it’s my job to say, ‘We’ll get through this, there is hope out there and here’s the direction you can move in to get going again.’”

For more information about Project Ezra, contact Melissa Scott at (510) 704-7480 ext. 750.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.