Hungry People

Have you ever started a conversation with someone when you KNEW that what you had to say might not be very palatable? Forget “not very palatable…;” what you have to say might just annoy people…  This is one of those times. Because I know that what I am about to say might be controversial, I ask you now to just stay with me until the end…hear me out please.

Back to the hungry people.  There was an item in the national news last August regarding “feeding the homeless.” The short story is that a church group in Raleigh had been going to a City park on weekends for six years to hand out food to “the homeless.” In August they were stopped by the police and told that they could no longer distribute food because of a city ordinance. The church was upset, the police were upset, the Mayor and City council were upset, and the people not being fed were upset. The comments were free-flowing, the rhetoric spewed forth from both sides, and very few of those making comments really stopped to listen to the others.

The story reminded me a great deal of our situation here in Birmingham.

  1. We are blessed with a large number of generous, mission-minded church and civic groups that see need in our community and/or hear the voice of God and are moved to “feed the homeless,” and usually share the gospel as well. Many church and civic groups take food to Birmingham parks and other public places and distribute that food plus clothing or other items to the people assumed to be homeless who congregate there.
  2. We have 1469 men, women and children who experience homelessness on any given night. This number includes those in emergency shelter, homeless programs, and those who sleep on the streets, in abandoned buildings and other places that no one should have to sleep. There are many thousands more who are impoverished or at-risk of homelessness.
  3. We have an appalling shortage of affordable housing. Based on estimates from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Alabama lacks over 90,000 affordable and available homes for individuals and families living with extremely low incomes. The Fair Market Rent (the average price so to speak) for a two-bedroom apartment is $664.00 a month.  It is recommended that a household not pay more than 30% of income on housing, which means that a household must earn $2213 monthly, or $26,554 a year to afford an apartment. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, if an individual earns the Alabama minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, s/he must work 70 hours a week, 52 weeks a year to afford that two-bedroom apartment. Please see LIHCA Fact Sheet for further statistics.
  4. We have hungry people in our area. I don’t think any of you doubt me when I say that, but just in case, let me share information from Magic City Harvest:  100,000 men, women and children in our area are food insecure. That means that they struggle throughout the year (not just at holiday time) to put food on the table, with children and seniors being our most vulnerable. While it may not be a shock to you to know that we have hungry people, it may shock you to know that 40% of all food in the United States is wasted.  By the way, Magic City Harvest is the only program in our area dedicated to recovering prepared and perishable food. Note that there are 100,000 men, women and children in our area who are food insecure. There are 1469 men women and children who are homeless on any given night….many more people hungry than have lost their homes.
  5. We have a multitude of really good social service agencies that work daily to prevent and end homelessness, and we have a number of really good people in mainstream agencies that work hard to get state and federal benefits into the hands of people most in need. Unfortunately, both the social service agencies and the mainstream benefits agencies see that the need is much greater than the resources available.

Back to the beginning of this blog…why should what I’m saying offend anyone?

Because I am going to suggest that while feeding someone in a park or other public property is, on the surface, a nice, thoughtful, caring gesture, we as a community are able to do better than this.

To find a solution to a problem or concern, you must first understand the problem. Let’s see if we can do that in a pared-down, few-bullet-points type manner.

  • Who may be hungry?
  1. Seniors living on low, fixed incomes.
  2. Children in families living on minimum wage.
  3. Individuals who are underemployed or unemployed.
  4. Families and individuals that have only Disability income to pay their bills.
  5. Families and individuals that pay so much for housing costs (rent, insurance and utilities) that they do not have enough money left over for food.
  6. Families and individuals who have experienced a personal crisis that was financially draining (job loss, car accident, hospitalization, chronic illness, divorce, etc.)
  7. Families and individuals who are living on the streets and in the sewer tunnels of our area.
  8. People who are housed in neighborhoods with little or no access to grocery stores, farmers markets, etc.
  • Why does hunger exist?
  1. Families and individuals do not have enough money to purchase all of the nutritious food that they need to NOT be hungry.
  2. Food Stamps are not sufficient to supply all of the healthy food that a person needs.
  3. We have neighborhoods that are food deserts meaning that there is no nearby grocery store to purchase fresh, healthy, market rate food, and there is insufficient public transportation to take neighborhood residents to grocery stores.
  4. It is difficult for people living on the streets to get three meals a day, every day.
  5. The cost of living has risen 67% since 1990 but the real value of the minimum wage has increased only 21%.
  • What makes people want to “feed the homeless?”
  1. It feels good to help someone else.
  2. Some people feel it is their mission/calling to feed people.
  3. The general public wants to “help others.”
  4. Some schools and civic organizations require volunteer or community service hours.
  5. Parents want children to understand that not everyone has material blessings.
  • When are people hungry?
  1. People experiencing homelessness can get at least one meal per day, every day of the week. Firehouse Shelter and Salvation Army serve a community lunch every day and anyone can receive that meal without explaining their need. There are several additional agencies that serve breakfast or brunch, or offer a sack lunch most days of the week.
  2. There is less food available from social service agencies on the weekends than during the week.
  3. People who are housed but who do not have sufficient income for food tend to be most in need the last two weeks of the month. By this time, food stamp allocations have been used up and income has been expended.
  4. People who live in neighborhoods that are food deserts are hungry any time transportation to a grocery store is insufficient or unavailable.
  • What are people hungry for?
  1. People who are housed but in need, and people experiencing homelessness generally have access to only the cheapest foods (potatoes, rice, bread, cheap fatty meat cuts) and have limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables and quality lean meats. The cheap foods also tend to be the most unhealthy, and the more expensive foods are the most healthy. This means that needy people often tend to be hungry for healthy foods.
  2. People who are housed but in need, are hungry for a way out of poverty, whether that means a job that pays a decent wage, or a home that is structurally sound so that utility bills are affordable, or access to technical training or higher education.
  3. People experiencing homelessness are hungry for the things they need to get out of homelessness permanently. For most these would include a decent, affordable place to live; a  job, or a better job than the one they have; possibly drug or alcohol treatment; mental health care; access to affordable medical care; and a support system of some sort.
  • What is the goal of providing food in public places?
  1. Provide food so that people are not hungry.
  2. Fulfill a personal or spiritual mission.
  3. Educate children and young people.
  4. Get a good feeling for having helped someone less fortunate than yourself.
  • What are alternatives to feeding needy people in public places?
  1. Work with neighborhood leaders to develop a food pantry in needy neighborhoods so that residents have access to quality food when it is needed. Your actions may very well help prevent homelessness.
  2. Donate funds or nonperishable foods to already existing food banks, food pantries, soup kitchens and donate prepared/ excess food to the food reclamation agency, Magic City Harvest. Food gets to the people in need, and waste is reduced.
  3. Partner with existing social service agencies serving people who are homeless to serve food and to have social or spiritual time with the clients. Those social service agencies will have restrooms available so that people being fed can wash their hands and use the restroom after a meal. There will also be case managers available who are experienced in assisting people to overcome the barriers that keep them homeless.
  4. Work with your local school to see if children who receive reduced or free lunches are given some sort of take-home ready-to-eat meals for weekends. If not, can you provide help?
  5. Consider volunteering with or donating to a Meals on Wheels program for seniors in need.
  6. Talk with your house of worship or your civic organization to work on strategies that can prevent homelessness and get people out of homelessness. Call One Roof for more information.
  7. Advocate for area changes that increase the capacity of our public transportation system, that promote job growth and that revitalize neighborhoods.
  8. Support your local Farmer’s Market , your local Teaching Farm, and consider talking with your house of worship or civic group about using any vacant land to do an urban garden.
  9. Get to know your neighbors; you will be more likely to know if they are in need and you will be more likely to get them to collaborate with you in assisting others in need.

Should hungry people be fed? I think the only possible response is yes. Are there options other than public feedings in parks? There are definitely some options worth discussing….options that provide human dignity, build someone’s self-esteem and further someone’s journey towards self-reliance. Wouldn’t these options lead to a positive impact in our city that goes far beyond an afternoon lunch in the park?

 

Michelle Farley is the Executive Director of One Roof. 

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