Thursday, 23 June 2016

Poverty In America: How The Church Is Feeding The Poor

By Paul Shalala in Syracuse, New York
John Stopper
It is real, it is there and people are going hungry every day in America.

Every time we think about the United States, we imagine a society where everyone has food, everyone drives and everyone is enjoying life.

But that is not the case, there is poverty in the United States of America.

But not everyone agrees that some people in the richest country in the world, go to bed on an empty stomach.

Even well known researchers and pundits deny that poverty exists in the country.

Writing in Forbes magazine on October 3, 2015, Tim Worstall, a fellow at the Adam Smith Institute in London said: “"Paul Theroux’s latest book is a travelogue across the Deep South. And in it, according to his introduction to it in the NY Times, he asserts that said Deep South has been impoverished by the capitalist plutocrats offshoring all the jobs. That this isn’t in fact how an economy works is easy enough to forgive, for many people hold the same, incorrect, opinion. However, the other part of Theroux’s argument, about the existence of poverty in America, is less easy to pass by. Simply because he is a well traveled man, he has seen real absolute poverty up front and personal. And he should indeed know that nothing like that at all actually exists in the United States."

However, the reality on the ground is that there is a silent minority of beggars, homeless people and those doing what Americans call ‘minimum wage jobs’ who cannot manage to support themselves.

According to a report entitled Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2014 by the U.S. Census Bureau, 47 million people in the USA were living with poverty in 2014.

This means that the poverty rate for that year was at 15%.

The report further reveals that among those hard hit in 2014, people with disabilities accounted for 29% (4 million people) while 16% of women lived in poverty.

To get first hand information on poverty in America, this blogger decided to research and analyse the situation during his short stay in the country.

In the USA, Syracuse city is now ranked the highest metropolitan area with poverty among African-Americans and Hispanics.

The city is located northern part of New York state.

According to the 2015 estimate of the United States Census Bureau, out of a total population of 144, 142 of Syracuse, 35.1% live in poverty.

The report states that of that population, 56.% are whites, 29.5% are African-Americans while Hispanics make up 8.3% of the city.

According to an article published by on September 5, 2015, “"Syracuse is at the leading edge of a disturbing national trend in which the number of people living in extreme-poverty neighborhoods nearly doubled from 7.2 million in 2000 to 13.8 million in 2013, the highest on record."
“The trend reflects a sharp reversal from the progress reported in the 1990s, when the number of Americans living in such concentrated poverty fell by 25 percent by 2000.”
The article states that the data is based on a 2015 report by Paul Jargowsky, the Rutgers University-Camden professor who published the study with The Century Foundation.
Coincidentally, this blogger is in Syracuse for six weeks and is investigating and writing a number of stories on poverty in America.

At Syracuse University, there is a famous street where beggars and homeless people are found.

On Marshall Street, both white and black beggars are found and Police keep an eye on them because sometimes they can be aggressive in their pursuit.

The image projected by Hollywood movies and TV channels that there is no poverty in America is totally different from what one can see if they venture out of these big US cities.

Like many other small cities reliant on industries, Syracuse has seen several plants closing and people losing jobs over the years.

The town has recorded an increase in unemployment which has resulted in poverty increasing in the southern part of the town which is mainly inhabited by blacks (African-Americans).

In the northern part of the town is a growing community of mainly Asian and Hispanic immigrants and a small but increasing population of Congolese.

Syracuse Deputy Mayor Bill Ryan concedes that his city has one of the country's highest poverty levels and he blames the trend for the increase in crime and the abuse of drugs in the city.
Bill Ryan speaking at City Hall

Mr Ryan, who is also the City's Chief of Staff, says shootings in the city where three people lost their lives in the past three weeks are as a result of poverty and increase in gang activities.

"Because they live in poverty, these criminal gangs are now resorting to drugs and crimes. We are doing everything possible to ensure we find the people involved because in the area where these shootings happened, we never had such incidents," said Mr Ryan when he addressed Mandela Washington fellows who visited City Hall recently.

On Tuesday, this blogger joined other Syracuse University-based 2016 Mandela Washington Fellows to help in making sandwiches for poor people at the Bishop Harrison Center which is run by the Catholic Church.

The trip was arranged by the university to help the young African fellows appreciate the challenges Americans in poor communities face on a daily basis.

The center, which is located at the All Saints Parish of the Catholic Church, hosts volunteers who make sandwiches twice a week to feed poor people who cannot afford to buy food for themselves.

“"The sandwich program started in 1990 and we make one at least a thousand sandwiches per week to feed people in need. We make them here at All Saints but they are transported to Assumption Parish in the north where they are given to people who cannot afford to feed themselves,”" said John Stopher, a volunteer who coordinates the program.

Fellows making sandwich
A former science teacher, Mr Stopher says he works with mainly volunteers who give their time to help feed the homeless, poor and needy.

“"Per day, we feed about 500 with lunch and supper. People who receive our sandwiches are those who are unemployed, those who are doing minimum wage jobs and those who cannot manage to feed their families. Sometimes we even have parents coming with their children," he added.

Mr Stopher, who gave a 30 minutes briefing to the visiting Mandela Washington Fellows, said he has a heart for volunteering and his Catholic faith has helped him spend a lot of time helping the needy since he retired.

“"I no longer work and I have a pension. I now volunteer here at the center. I also volunteer for the blood bank and the Red Cross. This spirit of volunteering is very common in our city and we have a couple of people coming down here to help out with sandwiches every week.”"

In the past 26 years the program has been running, church members and food companies have sustained the sandwich program by donating food stuffs to feed the needy.

When the meals are ready, those in need are fed irrespective of their religious affiliation and are not obliged to be registered.

“"We feed whoever shows up at our window. We do not care where they come from or which church they go to……. Usually we receive a huge number of people towards the end of the month when pay cheques run out,"” said Mr Stopper.
Schedule of meals at the Samaritan Center

Another church-run feeding program is the Samaritan Center, a former church building which is now the only hope for hundreds of people who cannot to feed themselves.

The center was established by seven local churches and it receives donations of funds and food stuffs from restaurants and several other donors.

It offers breakfast and supper to between 150 and 400 people on a daily basis.

According to officials at the Samaritan Center, about 150,000 meals were saved last year.

Most of the people fed are African-Americans but there is also a significant number of white people who receive the meals.

Just a few kilometers away from the Samaritan Center is the headquarters of the Salvation Army, another religious center where poor people are housed and fed for free.

The place offers free lodging for individuals and families who have been evicted or are homeless.

They are fed, given life skills and helped to get jobs.

On average, the homeless are given shelter for 20 days and there after they are expected to find a job or a new home.

"We are located in the southern part of Syracuse because this is where poverty is. We serve over 38,000 people through 41 separate programs, catering different groups of people," said Andrew Sabbaghzadeh, Resource Development Director at the Salvation Army Syracuse Headquarters.
Mr Sabbaghzadeh talking to Mandela Washington fellows

He said Salvation Army was working hard to fit into the US federal government's plan to eradicate poverty by 2022.

"Syracuse is nationally recognised because of its poverty. We are doing our best to cater for the poor through our programs."

The Salvation Army, which has been operating in Syracuse for over 100 years, has an annual budget of $20 million funded by grants from the federal and state governments as well as donors.

According to Salvation Army Onondaga County Chief Executive Officer Major Karla Clark, most of the money is raised during Christmas parties. 

"Despite being a church, the Salvation Army serves people of all races and religious faiths. Nobody is required to be a church member in order to receive our services," said Major Clark when she addressed visiting 2016 Mandela Washington fellows at her office.

Apart from offering shelter and food to the homeless, the church also runs the Therapy program which is aimed at helping youths break away from gangs and find alternatives like jobs and education to reduce the levels of violence in the city.

Syracuse is estimated to have over 100 gangs.

Apart from these church run initiatives, poor people in Syracuse, a town which falls under Onondaga County, have two other options of having a meal.

Firstly, the Onondanga County provides food and other supplies through a program called the Food Bank.

Here, those in need are registered by the county administration and queue up at centers to receive their meals.

According to Stopper, the Food Bank in a county benefits from US Federal funding.

Food banks operate like warehouses where food stuffs are collected and stored before being distributed to NGOs and food pantries which give food to the needy.

Secondly, the needy also receive meals from several centers called Pantries where free meals are issued at no cost.

The pantries survive on generosity from donors and other well wishers to feed thousands of people in Syracuse.

Apart from receiving donated food supplies, the pantries also buy cheap food stuffs from the local Food Banks.