Monday, November 17, 2008

Hitting close to home

I read this article in my local news paper today, and I felt the tears brimming across my eyes. This is my community. These are the people I live with, drive on the roads with, shop with, and breath the common air with. I want to do something, but I'm not really sure what to do...

Pantries see more in need

Group aims to stock shelves as layoffs fuel dilemma

By JOSEPH DITS Tribune Staff Writer

SOUTH BEND -- Arthur Hensell is beat. A diabetic, he admits that he doesn't eat enough some days to keep up his health. He can't afford the food.

So he climbs aboard his bike. His right leg still gives him pain, amputated last year after a bad fall in 1996 led to eight surgeries and an infection. But he extends his artificial leg to the pedal and rides a short distance from home to the tiny food pantry at 2406 Mishawaka Ave.

"I've been through a lot," says Hensell, 37, washed out from spending the last week and a half in a hospital. He takes a seat and a cup of coffee here at The Church Lady and Friends Outreach Ministries. He says the doctors want to test him for lung cancer.

Another face, another pantry. It could be anywhere in this country or this county. Check just about any newspaper, and you'll read about the same dilemma.

Incessant layoffs and lack of jobs are forcing a dramatic rise in the number of clients at food pantries, including those who once were donors.Pantries are reporting from 30 percent to 70 percent increases over last year.

That's why the United Way of St. Joseph County and several agencies are urging the public to join People Gotta Eat. The initiative seeks dollars because it's more efficient than a food drive. Numbers vary, but the Food Bank of Northern Indiana estimates $1 can garner up to $8 worth of food.

The goal is $180,000 through this winter, the estimated cost of feeding 1,000 families of four for six months, says Karen Sommers, the United Way's vice president of community investment. About $4,000 has been raised so far.

A proposal is being written to access United Way dollars for People Gotta Eat, too, she says. The United Way is asking several companies to join its own fundraising campaign for the first time; if they say no, Sommers says, they can help People Gotta Eat instead.

Half of the money would go to the Food Bank of Northern Indiana. The other half would go to 46 pantries in St. Joseph County.Pantry donations started to dry up this summer at the St. Vincent de Paul Society of St. Joseph County, says pantry director Penny Cyr. Clothing and furniture donations are down now, too.

But the phone rings so much that the staff can't keep up with it. Needy callers get testy, she says.

"There's a certain desperation out there," she says. "It's frightening."

The requests for food there have leapt from 10,500 in 2006 to 17,630 in 2007 to 19,000 in 2008, Cyr says.

The Penn Township Food Pantry sets a new record for clients each month, says Director Mike Hayes -- 451 households in September with 1,124 people, 388 households in October with 1,188 people.Nine out of 10 of the Penn pantry's clients say they were laid off, he says.

Most pantries give out a two- to four-day supply of food, allowing one visit per month. But if they're short on food, they give out less per household.

The Rev. Mary Booth Lyons says she opened her pantry in September 2007, and it's grown quickly. (Yes, The Church Lady is named after the old "Saturday Night Live" skit.) This month Lyons served 75 households, or nearly 300 people, here in a space she shares with the Mountain Top Faith Apostolic Church, which has about 13 members.

She drops food into plastic bags for Hensell, and except for canned salmon, he agrees to everything -- canned beets, peanut butter, Jell-O.

"I count on these people to get me through," he says, adding that he hits this and other food pantries, but not every month.His disability benefits from Social Security, a total of $538, leaves him $38 after he pays rent.

He says he has about $100 in food stamps, but he cannot use them because he lost his state benefit card and other IDs. He's been trying to replace the card for more than a month, to no avail.

The mess-up, he says, is that the local welfare office knows where he lives, but the place that issues the card has an old address for him.

"Can't slow me down," he says, explaining how he's managed to climb a ladder with one leg so he could do odd jobs -- painting or roof work -- for cash.

As he talks, Lyons softly exhales, "I can't take it.""The Lord has just put a burden on my heart," she says. "My definition of neglect is seeing a need and not trying to take care of it."

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