Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 6, 2007: The new face of poverty’s rookies

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For more than 20 years, Becky Sigal has watched Lorain’s poor and desperate walk in the door seeking the kind of aid she dispenses with practiced ease. A meal, baby food, a referral to a doctor.

It’s the new people who unnerve her.

Lorain’s descent into poverty, the largest percentage increase in Ohio last year, was not news to the soft-spoken wisp of a woman. As the veteran staffer at the Catholic Charities Family Center of Lorain, Sigal, 57, has a picture window on the growing class of poor.

Where once familiar faces saw her gentle smile, today it’s often poverty rookies. Families. Former factory workers. Victims of a middle class collapse.

She keeps a box of tissues handy, for sometimes they just cry. “They say, This is the first time I’ve done this.’ ”

Usually, there has been a crisis, or two. A job was lost, then came the accident. Mom and dad can’t make the rent, or afford a prescription.

As a walk-in crisis center in an industrial city hard hit by plant closings, the center has seen business boom. Demands on the food pantry and the growing lines at the daily meal concern James Gepperth, the center’s director. Most of his staff is volunteer and much of what he gives away is donated.

Sigal doesn’t worry. She credits a faith steeled by experience. But she does express frustration. She says much more could be done.

In the span of an hour Wednesday, she told a young father she had no baby formula to give him. She told a young woman there was no help available for her utility bill. She was able to fill a grocery bag for a middle-aged woman who said simply, “I’m hungry.”

Policy-makers can map out long-term solutions. Sigal applies on-the- spot logic shaped in rural Arkansas, where she grew up poor but “rich in family.” Sometimes, she says, people just need a little hope. And hope comes from a little help.

Each meal costs the family center $1. So a $50 donation is manna from heaven. Her clients need jobs, most certainly. But if you do not have that to give, she said, they also need bus tickets, toiletries, baby food and diapers.

It’s likely, she said, they’ve waited a long time to ask.

— Robert L. Smith

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