PITTSFIELD -- The nearly 1,000 people in Berkshire County who have been receiving unemployment benefits for longer than 30 weeks no longer have that vital financial help.

Unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless ended Saturday after Congress failed to extend the emergency benefits. Previously, those who had been laid off could receive unemployment insurance for a percentage of their previous pay for up to 63 weeks. Congress passed the legislation after the economic collapse in 2008.

The loss of benefits means that already stressed local food pantries will likely be busier than ever.

Father Mike Shershanovich, pastor at St. Joseph Church, helps oversee a weekly food pantry in the church's rectory on North Street. The pantry is normally open every Wednesday but was closed for Christmas. It will reopen on Friday.

He is expecting more people than usual to show up, due to both the pantry being closed and the cutoff of unemployment benefits.

"Our numbers have definitely increased," Shershanovich said, and that was before this latest news.

Typically between 100 and 120 people use the pantry to pick up food, he said.

"I'm sure (the number of patrons) will be up because of the economic climate of the whole city and country," Shershanovich said. Unemployment continues to be a problem in the county, he said.

There are several other food pantries in Berkshire County, including at St. Mark's Church on West Street, South Street Congregational Church, St. Stephen's Episcopal Church on East Street, the Salvation Army in Pittsfield and the Berkshire Food Project in North Adams.

At Congregation Knesset Israel in Pittsfield, Rabbi David Weiner said he has already been approached by three congregation members who "have gotten that very scary letter" telling them their unemployment benefits are expiring.

The letter tells them where the local food pantries are, where they can find soup kitchens and which agencies can assist them, Weiner said.

"The No. 1 challenge is keeping people in their homes," Weiner said. Helping "people who work paycheck to paycheck so they don't end up in the street or in the shelter system," is Weiner's goal.

He tells those in trouble to consider refinancing their homes if they can so they don't lose their house and to keep paying their electric bills. He also refers them to financial planners who can help them prioritize their spending.

His congregation has a charitable system to help fellow members, but said the loss of paychecks is hard to replace. "Where is the next $500 or $1,000 check going to come from?" he asked.

For his unemployed members, an unemployment check can't be replaced with minimum wage jobs. "Eventually people are looking for food," he said.

Weiner would like to see more efforts to help the jobless maintain their homes. If they lose them, they will become more dependent on public services, he said.

The congregation just wrapped up a collection of supplies for the Barton's Crossing Homeless Shelter in Pittsfield. The 300-member congregation is now accepting donations for the Pittsfield Area Council of Congregations, which gives heating assistance to the needy. There is not enough money in the heating fund, he said.

"It's pretty hard out there," Weiner said. "It's pretty cold out there. The job climate is extremely difficult."

He believes the economic issues are systemic. "You can't solve a systemic problem overnight," he said.

To reach Nathan Mayberg:
nmayberg@berkshireeagle.com
or (413) 496-6243