When Help Runs Thin

Eli Saslow: PULASKI, Va. — The destitute people who line up outside her office are asking for more help than ever. The organization where she works has less than ever to give. It falls on Denise Hancock to navigate the chasm in between, so she rubs her forehead, opens her office door and calls out into the waiting room. “Come on in,” she says.

The first client this morning at the Pulaski Community Action office is a young woman with tangled hair and smudged eyeliner, a single mother of two who lost her job at Shoney’s restaurant. “You’re my last resort,” she says, handing over a piece of paper stamped, “Urgent: Termination Notice.” It is an electric bill for $510.15 with full payment due immediately. “Can you help me?” she asks.

Hancock purses her lips, already knowing what will come next. She punches numbers into a calculator and then begins the same conversation she will have 14 more times on this day alone.

“I’m really sorry,” she says. “All we can afford to give right now is $35.”

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