Two recent national news stories highlight the desperate situations in which people find themselves in the current recession. In Bay City, MI a 93 year old widower froze to death because his electric utility had capped his usage for nonpayment. In California, a man killed his wife, his five children and himself after he and his wife lost their jobs. The headlines of these stories may engender a certain despair in you as they did in me. As a professional focused on nonprofit management, there was a second wave of grief and anxiety (paradoxically mingled with hope) because nonprofits in both of those regions could have forestalled both tragedies. The hope comes from my belief that nonprofits are preventing similar incidents all the time.

The widower, Marvin Schur, may not have died at home alone if he’d participated in an elder day program (like at Vintage and Lutheran Service Society’s SeniorNet and other organizations). He would have been missed if he did not appear as expected for a day or two. I believe a staffer or one of his peers would have inquired after him before it was too late. The story included the tragic detail that although the man had money in the house, clipped to a stack of bills, his electricity was turned off for nonpayment.   Many programs (including Faith in Action) match people who need everything from companionship to rides to help running errands with volunteers who can help with these daily needs. He surely could have had help writing checks or money orders to pay his bills.

Finally, Mr. Schur may have been suffering from dementia, which could explain his failure to pay bills despite having the money to do so.  The health and mental health providers that make up a large part of our sector could have intervened and ensured that a man with dementia not live alone.  Of course, the current economy can cause us to worry, as UPMC recently laid off 500 employees.  The layoffs were “almost entirely nonclinical, administrative and managerial positions” and occurred throughout the system.  Some of those positions were medical social workers, one of whom  might have encountered Mr. Schur and referred him to services that would have kept him out of isolation in his living room.

The same week that Mr. Schur’s story went national, reports came from California about a father killing his family and himself after falling behind on his mortgage and losing his job.  Losing two incomes (Ervin Lupoe’s wife had been terminated, too) while carrying a large mortgage in a down real estate market amidst constant reports of recession creates stress for a father of five. Initial reports, however, tally $15,000 owed to the IRS plus one $2,500 mortgage payment and a late fee.  Those are significant amounts to have to pay short-term, but they’re not insurmountable.  More insurmountable than these debts was the lack of hope that clearly set in.

Again, throughout the story, I see nonprofit connections.  The Lupoes lost their jobs because they’d understated their household income in an attempt to get lower childcare rates.  The childcare providers in this country – from home-based centers to lofty, accredited centers – are almost all nonprofits. They understand that affordable, safe care is important to all parents.

In the end, Mr. Lupoe snapped.  Was he unaware of his options when he started to think of the unthinkable?  Would the story have ended differently if he’d had a service like the warmlines run by Peer Support and Advocacy Network in Allegheny County and Grapevine Center in Butler County?  My knowledge of the commitment of nonprofits is that the story surely could have ended differently.

My hope is borne out by local news reports of the tragedy.  NBC Los Angeles ended their breaking news coverage with a section directing readers to places they can go if they need the kind of help the Lupoes needed.  In addition to local government employment and mental health resources, the article points to a nonprofit suicide hotline and two nonprofit housing groups.

The nonprofit sector does things no other sector does, in good times and bad.  It’s especially important in these hard economic times that we get our messages out to those who need them and make it easy for people to take advantage of the services we exist to provide.