Sunday, February 15, 2009

New Faces In Poverty

This story reminds me of a time in college I did a quantitative study at a non-profit Christian organization which helped the poor. The people employed in the organization assumed I was studying the poor, however, I was actually studying how the staff responded to the poor. Overwhelmingly, they thought the people seeking help were lazy—even before they heard their stories. Many exhibited to me contempt for them. They never really questioned how the people got into the positions they did, and when talking to the distraught outside the establishment, I heard all kinds of stories. We should be careful in judging the poor; and as this story indicates, many seeking aid may increasingly be working and professional people. Click the title to go to source.


Newly unemployed look for help at local pantries
by Steve Lord

Victoria Stephenson is used to working.

A former Aurora nursing home employee who worked with Alzheimer's disease patients, she quit her job when she had to leave town to deal with a death in the family. She has been unable to find work since she moved back.

Now she is trying to take care of her three children -- 8, 7, and 5 years old -- without a job. Food stamps cover only about half of the groceries she needs for a month.

That's how Stephenson, bundled up in a blue down jacket with a furry collar, found herself waiting in snow and cold recently in the parking lot outside the Aurora Interfaith Food Pantry at Hesed House on South River Street.

For the first time in her life, she visited the pantry looking for help.

"This year, I had to choose between birthday parties for the children and putting food on the table," she said quietly. "I'm praying it's temporary."

Sheila Luckett, who recently moved to Aurora from Chicago, found herself in a similar predicament. She was working as a certified nursing assistant until she injured a hand and lost her job.

Also bundled up against the cold, she struggled with a heavily bandaged finger on her right hand, making it hard to lift even a bag of groceries to her car. Like Stephenson, January found Luckett as a visitor to Aurora's food pantry for the first time in her life.

She has five of her own children, and one grandchild, at home.

"That's why I had to come to the pantry," Luckett said. "When times get better and my finger heals, maybe finding nursing jobs will be easier."

The stories shared by Stephenson and Luckett are not unusual. Demand is up at food pantries, and those running the pantries say they are seeing many first-timers asking for help, as well as a very different demographic than in the past.

Gone are the stereotypes and typical profiles, replaced with diverse names and faces that cross the lines of race, age, sex and language.

"I have never heard of so many people needing so much help as this year," said Wally Boyce, a volunteer of many years at the Salvation Army Tri-City Corps food pantry, housed in the Joe K. Anderson Community Center in St. Charles.

The numbers speak for themselves.

Last year at this time, the Salvation Army pantry was giving out about 250 bags of groceries a month, on average. That increased to about 300 bags a month in the fall, according to Jennie Ziegert, social services director at the Salvation Army, and director of the food pantry. Boyce said for January, the number went up to about 350 bags a month.

At the Interfaith Food Pantry in Aurora, volunteers gave out about 80 to 100 bags a day each day the pantry was open at this time last year. That increased to about 120 bags a day by last fall, according to Director Marilyn Weisner. For the three months of August, September and October 2008, the pantry received 500 new requests for food, which was a record.

By January, she said the pantry was giving out up to about 140 bags a day.

Put another way, it rose from serving about 900 people a week last fall to more than 1,200 people a week now.

'Nowhere else to go'

Jennie Ziegert started noticing last fall different groups of people coming to the Salvation Army in St. Charles, where she runs the food pantry. During most years, the Tri-City Corps' "primary customers" were single, white mothers, Ziegert said.

Suddenly, more Hispanics were showing up, so many that by the holiday season, the pantry had to bring in translators for the first time.

Even her primary customers were different. One single white mother had a job with the state of Illinois, a management level job. Her hours and pay had been cut back so much, she was having trouble making ends meet, and found herself asking for help for the first time.

There were more senior citizens, too. And for the first time in Ziegert's experience, men. Some were single fathers, some just single men, who are ineligible for any other kind of aid.

"It was so hard for men to come in," she said. "I applaud them for coming in and putting their family before their pride. They start to cry, and then I start to cry. They say, 'I said I would never come here.' This is the bottom of the barrel; they have nowhere else to go."

Ziegert also started noticing more public employees coming in for help -- firefighters, police officers, jail guards.

"Even some paramedics," she said. "It's challenging for me to see those people have to come in here. And they have to get over the fear that we will give their information out, which we absolutely will not."

Worst yet to come

Because the current crisis is symptomatic of the times we're in, food pantry officials and volunteers have no idea which way the demand is going to go. The general thinking is that in the short term, it will only get worse.

Fortunately, pantry officials also report that in response to the times, they have seen more donations than ever before. Weisner said the recent Holiday Food Drive in Aurora, which ran for the first time through November 2008 but will become a growing annual event, has packed the pantry's warehouse with 10 pallets of food.

"The community has been very, very generous," she said.

Ziegert reports a similar situation in St. Charles.

"This is the most food we've seen donated for the last five or six years," she said. Boyce added that in his more than six years volunteering at the pantry, "I've never seen anything like the donations."

Private efforts are more and more necessary because government support has been decreasing steadily since 2003. Food pantries often get surplus food through the government. Six years ago, there was $242 million in surplus government food that went to food pantries; by 2007, that volume had decreased to $52 million.

Boyce pointed out that in St. Charles, the pantry could benefit from more volunteer help right now to help bag the donated food, and distribute it to the increasing number of people needing it.

But maybe the biggest battle to helping the hungry -- particularly the newly needy -- is overcoming the more human trait of pride. The adage says that is what "goeth before the fall," and everyone from officials, volunteers and even the recipients themselves say people need to overcome that to get the help they need.

"Don't ever be too proud to ask, especially with the children at stake," said Luckett, who was forced to the food pantry to help feed the six children in her household. "Don't ever be too proud to ask."