Remember free government cheese? These days, we have free government cell phones.
This is just one of many public and private organizations that can help you meet basic needs -- from groceries to lifesaving medications -- for free.
These are programs that, as a taxpayer, you've helped underwrite. Just about everyone knows about food stamps and federal housing vouchers. But not everyone knows about those free cell phones or programs that provide:
* Eye exams and glasses.
* Rent assistance.
* Birth control, Pap smears and mammograms.
* Free shoes.
* Business attire for job seekers, both female and male.
Where do you find this kind of help? Read on.
Hungry for help
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, is serving more Americans than ever: One in nine of us were using the program in March. To learn about SNAP and other federal food programs, including Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, and school lunches, click here.
Incidentally, that infamous Reagan-era government cheese was part of the Commodity Supplemental Food Program. The current food list doesn't include dairy products.
Feeding America, formerly known as America's Second Harvest, maintains a state-by-state list of food banks and soup kitchens. If more than one is available and you're broke, visit them all; every dollar you don't spend on grub can help pay rent or utilities.
* A food bank may give "first pick" to clients who volunteer.
* Check for edibles on The Freecycle Network. I've seen garden produce, tree fruit, infant formula, canned goods, cereal and even pet food offered.
* Some social-service organizations provide coffee and/or donated pastries or bagels to clients while they wait. If times are really tight, there's your breakfast or lunch.
A place to lay your head
Waiting lists are long for the federal government's rental assistance program. Some cities aren't taking new applicants for Section 8 housing vouchers. Be prepared to wait.
If you're out of work and eviction is imminent, call United Way's 211 referral line or a nonprofit such as the Salvation Army and be specific, such as: "Starting the first of the month I have nowhere to live." Because so many others are in the same predicament, you may not be able to get immediate help.
Get a list of all regional shelters. Check whether any churches let homeless people spend the night. If you have a disease or chronic condition, ask allied agencies about special housing.
Note: Any cash assistance you receive probably won't cover more than a room in a boardinghouse or a down-at-the-heels motel. But that still beats sleeping in a culvert.
* Work it off. Ask your landlord for a rent reduction in exchange for landscape work, cleaning the building, etc. Use this experience to apply for a resident manager job somewhere else. For more tips on free flops, see "How you can live rent-free."
* Put the word out among friends, asking for just one night per couch. Sing for your supper while you're there -- baby-sit, clean the tub, change the litter box. If you're useful, you might get asked to stay longer.
Staying warm, staying connected
Candles are not a safe substitute for electric lights. Ask your local utility about special rates for low-income residents. Your state's public utility commission can give information on policies such as a moratorium on shut-offs during winter.
The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Plan provides utility funding. Social-service agencies and nonprofits such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul may also offer help with water, electricity or furnace fuels. Women's Apparel Bargains
Your phone company likely offers a bare-bones plan for low-income customers. Some states offer additional assistance with phone funds.
That Lifeline Across America program provides either a free cell phone or monthly savings on a land line, depending on where you live. You may also be able to borrow up to $200 worth of installation fees, interest-free. To find out how to apply, click here.
The Internet is no longer a frill. It's terrifically useful to job seekers who can post résumés, scan want ads nationwide and network with other unemployed folks. Web sites such as Freecycle and Craigslist can help you score freebies ranging from baby clothes to gleaned fruit. E-mail keeps you connected with family and friends.
Cheap Internet services are out there, but be sure to read the fine print. Say so long to the bells and whistles, though, and get used to dial-up. (You'll live.) The public library may have public computers, but access is often limited; at my library you get 30 minutes a day.
Have a laptop computer? Seek out free Wi-Fi, also available at many public libraries. Coffee shops, casual restaurants and bars offer the service, but this is awkward if you can't afford to buy anything. Some places are kicking out Wi-Fi users who don't pay the freight. If you were a loyal customer before your finances went south, a friendly manager may give you a break.
Or seek out other hot spots with Web sites such as the Wi-Fi FreeSpot Directory. A few searches turned up free Internet access in a pedestrian mall in Montana, a coin laundry in New Jersey and a supermarket in Alaska. You might be able to surf for hours.
For the health of it
Public health and community health centers offer care on a sliding scale. That may mean "free" if you're in sad financial shape. Sometimes the medications are free, too. To find a community health center or public health clinic in your area, click here.
Your kids may be eligible for free health insurance, including dental care, through the Insure Kids Now initiative. Some service organizations sponsor health giveaways. For example, Rotary clubs underwrite weekly health clinics in some cities, and many Lions Club chapters pay for hearing aids, eye exams and glasses. Contact local chapters to find out what's available.
More than three-fifths of Planned Parenthood clients use the family planning center as their primary health care provider. This includes women who are past childbearing age but still need annual exams plus blood-pressure checks, cholesterol screenings and other tests. Care is on a sliding scale, which could mean free. You can usually get free condoms there, too. To find a clinic, click here.
Sight for Students provides eye exams and glasses for uninsured youngsters. The Vision USA program offers free exams to low-income people with no insurance. EyeCare America incorporates several free-care projects, including help for people with diabetes and glaucoma.
Most pharmaceutical companies offer patient assistance programs for low-income people. Organizations such as NeedyMeds, the Partnership for Prescription Assistance, the Chronic Disease Fund and the Bureau of Prescription Help can get you started.
The HealthWell Foundation helps with co-pays and insurance premiums for people with certain chronic or life-threatening illnesses. The Patient Access Network Foundation offers the underinsured co-pay assistance.
* Doctors often get free prescription samples. Ask if samples of your medication are available.
* Walgreens and CVS drugstores offer free flu shots, free basic health screenings and free treatment for minor ailments. Certain conditions apply; click here for more information.
* Your city or county health department may offer well-baby checkups, immunizations and other basic preventive care, including screenings for sexually transmitted diseases.
* The National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program offers screenings that may be free.
As I noted in "Do you have a problem swallowing your pride" these programs are set up to help those in need. If you're having trouble keeping yourself housed, fed and healthy, accept a little aid for the short term.
You can give back later -- but first you have to get through today.
In search of services
To learn about more than 1,000 federal programs -- everything from child care to tax prep -- go to GovBenefits.gov.
Then check the "community services" pages in the front of the phone book. You'll see local, state and federal agencies, plus programs run by nonprofits such as the American Red Cross, Catholic Charities and the Salvation Army.Your city may also have a 211 phone number, a clearinghouse whose employees can direct you toward many types of assistance. About 80% of the country has 211 service,
Last year there was a "marked increase" nationwide in the number of calls for basic necessities
* In 2007, there were 1,942,193 calls for help with housing and/or utilities. In 2008, the number was 3,163,744.
* In 2007, there were 1,252,050 calls for help with food. In 2008: 1,716,650.
If there's no 211 service in your community, or even if there is, keep looking. Do an online search for social services both regional and national. You'll likely find that some programs are swamped. Yet even if an organization can't help it may refer you to others. Ask and keep asking.
Food banks often become de facto social-service clearinghouses. Francis Aviani of the St. Anthony Foundation in San Francisco says these pantries "have a very good (grasp) of other agencies in the community."
The St. Anthony Foundation offers numerous resources: hot meals, medical care, social workers, a food bank, clothing giveaways, Internet access and drug/alcohol rehab. You may be lucky enough to have a place like this near you. If not, you may need to contact more than one agency.
* Ask what documents are required, so you don't have to make a second trip.
* Don't just ask, "What time do you open?" Find out what time people start lining up, whether there's a sign-up sheet, how many days a week a program is offered, etc.
* Talk to other people waiting in line. They may know of other agencies that can help you.
* Religious organizations often provide help -- some with proselytizing, some without.
Mr. Dangerfield is an I.A.P.D.A Certified Debt Specialist whom has worked in the finance industry for 11 years. He manages www.beingbrokesuckstoday.com and is the author of "A Dangerfield Manifesto" and co-founder of SMG Holdings, the parent company of Squad Music Group, Dangerfield Artistic Entertainment SMG Publishing and Taboo Dangerfield Publishing
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