Life After Layoffs: A City's Struggle to Survive

Nowhere else in America has the unemployment rate jumped so high, so fast than in Elkhart.

A year ago, this northern Indiana community was prospering, with unemployment hovering at 4.4 percent. But this summer the recession hit and it hit hard.

Several big recreational vehicle manufacturers slashed jobs. Then their suppliers followed with layoffs. Unemployment has now reached 10.7 percent -- that's nearly one out of every nine people without work.

"Our plant just closed down," said Ed Neufeldt, who lost his job with RV manufacturer Monaco Coach Sept. 17. "They just closed the doors."

Based on ABC News calculations of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Elkhart's unemployment rate jumped 143 percent in the last 12 months -- it's the highest increase of any metropolitan area in the country.

After 32 years with Monaco Coach, Neufeldt finds himself on unemployment, searching for a new job when most local companies are laying people off.

"We were one of the big corporations around the area. The building was one of the biggest buildings in northern Indiana," Neufeldt said. "When it shut down, it was a big shock to everyone."

When his unemployment runs out, Neufeldt said he hopes to find a job "washing dishes or sweeping floors or something."

To pass the time and give something back to his community, Neufeldt and other unemployed RV workers are helping a homeless shelter gut and renovate a building for an expansion.

"I wanted something to do. I wanted the fellowship," he said. "We've all took a big loss in our 401(k) and we don't have jobs and stuff. It seems like we're happy up here."

The Faith Mission homeless shelter, where Neufeldt and other unemployed workers are volunteering, currently has 136 beds. Their work will allow the shelter to add 20 more.

"To see these people who don't have a roof over their head -- they don't have a job either. They're really down," Neufeldt said. "That just lifts your spirits up and you think to yourself, 'man I've got it pretty good after all, even though I don't have a job.'"

High Gas Prices Killed Local Jobs

Dorinda Heiden-Guss, president of the Economic Development Corp. of Elkhart County, said that the RV industry had been devastated by high gas prices and then a tightening of credit to buy the large vehicles.

"It's discretionary income being spent on larger-priced items," she said.

More than 480 companies in the area have let go of one or more employees, she said.

Donnie Gaut worked for 13 years at RV-maker Travel Supreme before losing his job in April.

"I've been job hunting and haven't found anything," Gaut said. "It's just been such a blessing to be able to help other people out. You don't think about your situation."

On Monday night his wife learned that her company will close and that she will likely lose her job.

"What really helps me out the most is having trust in God and believing he will provide. That's what carries me through every day as far [as] keeping joy in my heart and peace in my mind," Gaut said. "It's what we need around this area right now because every week you hear about somebody else shutting down."

Like many other communities around the country, Elkhart has adapted to a recession that is looking longer and deeper each week.

The local Chamber of Commerce has launched a new Buy Local campaign, telling residents that patronizing area businesses is one way to help fight further local job losses.

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