Buffalo News, July 3, 2008: Agencies that help the poor are straining to keep up with the need

Posted on

By Tom Buckham
Updated: 07/03/08 7:34 AM

The line of hungry men, women and children who assemble just before supper on the sidewalk outside Friends of Night People is getting longer and longer.

On June 9, the soup kitchen at Hudson and Wadsworth streets in Allentown served a record 235 people 174 in the first hour after the food line opened at 5 p. m.

Through the first six months of this year, more than 27,000 meals were dished up 4,000 more than in the first half of last year stretching the nonprofit organization۪s budget very thin.

Executive Director Joe Heary says the newcomers are the working poor overwhelmed by the soaring costs of food, gasoline, utilities, medicine and other necessities. The pinch of rising prices may be affecting all of us, Heary says, but those at the bottom of the income scale are feeling crushed.

Friends of Night People is not the only organization being taxed by this tide of people who are no longer able make ends meet.

Area soup kitchens and food pantries that provide a nutritional safety net for homeless, destitute and working poor individuals and families are experiencing an unprecedented surge in demand for their services.

Through May 31, the Food Bank of Western New York distributed more than 5 million pounds of donated food items to 457 agencies in the four counties it serves, up from 4.2 million in the first five months of last year.

The April distribution totaled 1.45 million pounds, the highest for a single month since November 2005 a time when demand was peaking anyway because of the Thanksgiving holiday.

“At this rate, we۪re on pace to distribute 12 million pounds this year,” said Marylou Borowiak, Food Bank interim executive director.

That would be 1.4 million pounds more than last year.

The fact that lines are generally longer in warm weather because soup kitchens are easier to reach than in winter doesn۪t explain the surge, according to those who are in daily contact with folks living at the margins.

“We۪re getting a lot of new faces people we haven۪t seen before,” Heary said of the lines outside the Friends of Night People dining hall.

Most hold jobs that, given the current run-up in living expenses, no longer pay enough to support them and their families, he said.

“We۪re seeing a lot more people who have never been to a food pantry or soup kitchen,” said Ann Harrington, program coordinator at the Loaves and Fishes dining room in Lafayette Presbyterian Church, Lafayette and Elmwood avenues.

The West Side agency not only served 3,000 more meals in the first five months of 2008 than a year earlier but has referred many more people to food pantries than in 2007, Harrington said.

Pantries distribute to people living at home, so she takes that as another sign of distress in the working-poor community.

“Of the 427 people we۪ve referred, 150 were new to me 35 percent,” she said. “Every year we see lots of turnover in the lunchroom, but not in food referrals.”

In the past, the bread line at the Response to Love Center in St. Adalbert Catholic Church grew longer toward the end of the month, when welfare stipends ran out and people needed free meals to tide them over until the next check arrived.

No longer.

“Now it starts at the beginning of the month. There are many new people new working poor,” said Sister Mary Johnice Rzadkiewicz, founder and executive director.

“We sometimes get 250 people coming for the hot lunch,” served daily from 10:30 a. m. to noon, she said.

“They۪re telling us it is increasingly difficult to purchase food. They may be on food stamps, or have jobs, but the cost of rent, food and child care is so high. Now they۪re frightened because utilities are going up as well.”

That such people are in trouble “is not because they۪re not budgeting. They are,” Sister Johnice added.

Agencies served by the Food Bank report similar increases in demand at the beginning of each month, Borowiak said.

“If you are [the] working poor, you can stretch your budget only so far,” she said. “Something has to give. So as you get toward the end of the month, there are no dollars left to buy food.”

Overcrowded food kitchens and pantries are “a function of high gas and food prices, and the fact that Buffalo is the nation۪s second poorest city,” said Phil O۪Connell of the Homeless Alliance, which conducts periodic surveys to determine the number of people living without a roof overhead.

Not everyone who queues up at a soup kitchen is homeless.

“But most folks living in poverty in Buffalo are at constant risk of becoming homeless,” O۪Connell said.

A person, or family, who seeks free meals in order to pay other expenses is nearing that tipping point, he and others warn.

“It۪s not a matter of saving, but surviving,” he said.

Growing crowds and a resulting increase in dining hall tensions can be stressful for providers, too.

Loaves and Fishes took the unusual step of closing Wednesday and today in order to extend the Fourth of July weekend and give Harrington a breather.

The longer bread lines and higher demand for other assistance also have required more paperwork and strained the soup kitchen۪s finances, she said.

“We are looking for money under rocks, we need it so desperately,” Harrington said.

Agencies are trying to stir their donor bases to action.

“We۪re updating them on what is transpiring, and saying: If there۪s anything else you can do, it would be appreciated,۪ ” Borowiak said.

In a recent message to Friends of Night People supporters, Heary asked not just for their time and money but “men۪s clothing, excess personal care items (soap, toothbrushes, deodorants), single-serve bottled beverages . . . so we can help those who need it now.”

« Back to News