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Annual Backpack Drive Highlights Cape's Growing Housing Needs

ORLEANS -- Outside Nauset Middle School on Aug. 26, backpacks sat in orderly rows on the grass waiting to be picked up, each one specially packed up for individual students across different grade levels.

The Homeless Prevention Council has so far provided backpacks full of school supplies for approximately 285 students for the upcoming 2021-2022 school year through its annual Backpack to School program. Now in its 20th year, the program matches volunteers with families to customize backpacks and supplies for students and families in need.

Businesses and organizations including Nauset Marine, Staples, Friends Marketplace, the Orleans Police Department, Seamen’s Bank, Cape Associates, Nauset Rotary, Cape Cod 5 Saving Bank, the Chatham Coast Guard Station and the Cooperative Bank of Cape Cod helped collect donated supplies for this year’s program. A volunteer group led by Diane Weisman, Susan Carlson and Maryann Campagna spent hours shopping for pens, pencils, markers, notebooks and other materials, and helped pack up the backpacks at the police department ahead of the Aug. 26 pickup.

“It went really well,” said Sarah Southwick, an AmeriCorps vista serving with the Homeless Prevention Council who coordinated this year’s program. “It was a great undertaking and a really great group effort. Without that, it wouldn’t have worked.”

But the work isn’t done.

The council has already far exceeded the number of families served through the program last year, and staff and volunteers are still collecting donated materials to service more families in need of help with back to school shopping. Inside the council’s headquarters on Old Tote Road, leftover backpacks can be found stashed in offices, while tubs of materials and supplies sit in the building’s basement.

Council CEO Hadley Luddy estimates that the council will serve about 65 percent more people through the program this year than in 2020. It’s just another indicator of the growing need for housing assistance on the Cape, she said.

“I see it as a great positive that families are reaching out to us and asking for help,” she said. “But I also see it as a really key indicator as to what we’re dealing with. The fact that we have this huge uptick in numbers shows you what families are struggling with.”

Since its founding in 1991, the council has provided services including case management referrals, housing application assistance, housing searches and fuel assistance to north of 43,000 people on the Lower and Outer Cape. Demand for the council’s services continues to grow.

Through the first quarter of 2021, HPC had already served half the total number of clients it helped in 2020, according to Luddy. She credits this not only to the COVID-19 pandemic, but also to a surging real estate market that has made housing even harder to come by in an area where it has already long been in short supply.

“We’re seeing an enormous uptick in the number of people that call us on a regular basis calling us saying ‘My rental’s been sold. What do I do?’ And our answer is ‘There’s nowhere to go.’”

The council has so far raised $18,500 toward its $25,000 goal for this year’s Backpack to School initiative, Luddy said. The money will be used to offset costs associated with providing supplies to students.

Programs such as Backpack to School, as well as the council’s annual Adopt-a-Family program during the holiday season, help ease the financial burden for families struggling financially. In some cases, Luddy said, local families are spending as much as 60 percent of their income on housing, which can force families to have to make difficult decisions when it comes to other needs and expenses.

The programs also help boost the nonprofit council’s visibility, allowing staff to serve more people in need.

“The sooner that someone gets connected with prevention support services, the more likely we will be able to potentially stabilize their situation,” Luddy said.

Evidence of the housing shortage plaguing the region can be found this summer all across the Cape. Many businesses, especially those in the service industry, have been forced to close on select days due to a lack of available staff. The lack of summer workers stems in part back to a lack of available, affordable workforce housing, Luddy said.

To that end, Luddy says it is also the council’s mission to educate the broader public about the Cape’s housing issues and what they can do to help address the problem.

“I think our job is to advocate for people in our community to be part of the solution of creating housing. If you’ve got a rental unit that you’re not really using or you’ve been thinking about turning it into an accessory dwelling unit, do it,” she said. “We have to get people more engaged.”

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