News-Gazette (Illinois), July 20, 2008: Feeling the pinch

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By Julie Wurth

Sunday July 20, 2008

Robert K. O’Daniell

Marissa Garza detassels corn Tuesday southwest of Philo. The teacher’s aide from Texas couldn’t find summer work near home, so she came to Champaign County with her son, Rolando, 15, and her daughter Daniela, 12, to help supplement her income.

A factory worker who takes an overnight shift and daytime cleaning jobs when her hours are cut.

A teacher’s aide who travels north to detassel corn because summer jobs are scarce in Texas.

A cancer survivor on disability thrilled to find a free bicycle, so she doesn’t have to walk to the store.

The faltering economy is forcing many Americans to cut back on extras as they absorb rising gas and food prices. But for those already living on the economic edge, the choices are much more grim.

They already limit driving if they even have a car and spend little on entertainment or eating out. Now they’re taking on extra jobs, downsizing their homes and, increasingly, turning to charity for help.

Food pantries and other nonprofits are seeing more and more people who need free food, clothes or help paying bills on a regular basis.

“Some people just put us in their budget,” says Shannon Cook, coordinator at the nonprofit Empty Tomb in Champaign.

About 100 people show up each afternoon at Empty Tomb to get free clothes or household items, and every 90 days they can get help with food, medical costs or other bills. Cook is able to give eight families a week $30 toward rent or another bill, but it just scratches the surface.

Once a year, families are eligible for more substantial assistance, perhaps to pay off a past-due power bill. These days, Cook says, it’s not uncommon to see bills of $1,000 or even $3,000, up from maybe $500 a year ago. Families are often forced to choose among food, power, rent and medical costs.

“They will sell their food stamps to pay the power bills. These are decisions that they make,” she says.

Across town, at Salt and Light Ministries on Anthony Drive, the crowds at the weekly food and clothing giveaway have set new records four times in the last seven weeks. Salt and Light is now the largest emergency food program in Champaign County and gave away its millionth pound of food July 9 about six weeks earlier than Executive Director Nathan Montgomery projected just last month.

The ministry throws open its warehouse for four hours every Wednesday afternoon to give away food, clothes and household items. By 3:30 p.m. that day, the clothing racks were nearly stripped bare and only a small stack of produce remained.

“We’re seeing more and different people,” including those seeking help for the first time, Montgomery says. “It has definitely jumped considerably.”

Half of the families have at least one working adult, he says, arguing that Champaign County’s poverty problem is not unemployment but low-wage jobs, such as food service. While unemployment here is relatively low, he says, only three Illinois counties have a higher poverty rate than Champaign County’s 16 percent.

Here are the stories of some struggling families:

A working vacation

Teacher’s aide Marissa Garza, who lives in south Texas, spent last summer working in a gravel pit to earn extra income. That company wasn’t hiring this year, and neither were most other employers back home.

So Garza, who earns about $800 a month during the school year, decided to join a friend detasseling corn in Champaign County.

It’s her first tour as a migrant worker, and she was busy searching for work pants, durable shoes and sun hats at Empty Tomb on a recent Tuesday. The days are long, sometimes 12 hours, and the work is hot and “very muddy,” she says.

Joining her in the cornfields outside Philo last week was her 15-year-old son, Rolando. Daughter Daniela, 12, also came to Champaign but is too young to work. Both children attend summer school, too.

Garza said rising gas prices, in particular, have taken a bite out of the family budget.

“I’m trying to pay the most important things first the mortgage, utility bills, that’s about it.”

She used to take the kids out to movies or dinner once in a while, but not any more. They haven’t planned a vacation this year “except this one,” she says with a rueful smile, adding, “Some time away from home is enough.”

Her attitude is no-nonsense and upbeat. She hopes the hard work will inspire her children to go to college so they can get a better job someday. Garza is taking her own advice: She’s working toward her education degree.

“Life is not easy. You have to work for what you want.”

Doing without

Martin Delatorae has noticed the growing crowds at Empty Tomb, where he stops in regularly to hunt for shirts and good books.

Delatorae, 43, can understand why. He works part time as a counselor, and gets partial disability because of a deteriorating spine and complications from cerebral palsy. He’s had a tough time making ends meet, especially in the last year.

He has a car but doesn’t drive unless he has to, for groceries and other errands. He uses the bus to get around and walks whenever he can.

“I’ve been noticing a lot more people taking the bus,” he says.

Delatorae has stopped eating out “even a cheap meal is $5 or $6” and doesn’t entertain much any more.

“I like having people over, but it’s just too expensive.”

He’s also more disciplined at the grocery store, passing over nicer cuts of meat or prepared frozen foods.

“I used to like to go grocery shopping. I’d go to the store and just buy things. Now I just buy what I need,” he says.

He’s not complaining, saying he finds plenty of entertainment reading books or watching TV. And the one luxury he won’t give up? His $40-a-month Internet service.

“I’m not starving. I make it. I was taught how to do without when you don’t have it.”

A move to downsize

When Plastipak Packaging cut her full-time hours in half, Alyshia Bell volunteered for the overnight shift, which pays a higher wage.

She’s also trying to find houses to clean during the day, when she’s not watching her 2-year-old niece and her own daughters, Alexis, 10, and Laniesha, 8. Her sister works days, so they swap child care.

How does she get by? “Doing a whole lot of robbing Peter to pay Paul,” she says.

She goes to Salt and Light for necessities like T-shirts and shorts for the girls. She also gets food stamps, but that “doesn’t go as far as it used to,” she says. Plus, if she picks up extra work cleaning houses, it can lower her food assistance.

To save on rent and gas, she and her girls moved last weekend from their three-bedroom rental home in northwest Champaign to a cheaper townhouse closer to their school, Robeson Elementary.

She also didn’t enroll her daughters in any extracurricular activities this summer, and the family won’t be taking any trips. Her effervescent girls, who dream of being a performer and a designer someday, don’t seem to mind.

“She’s a good mommy,” Alexis says.

‘Grin and bear it’

Life seems to hit some people with one thing after another.

Kandace Spears, 52, moved back to Champaign-Urbana from California years ago to be closer to her brother, only to witness his murder in 1988. She’s suffered from depression on and off ever since.

She worked at various factory jobs but was injured at work and has been on disability since 2000. Then she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

She survives on Social Security disability payments, $41 a month in food stamps, subsidized housing and utility assistance from the state. But she still needs to visit food pantries and charities for extra food and clothing.

“I’m having a hard time with food and paying my bills,” she says. “By the time you get rent and the power bill paid, it hardly leaves you anything.”

Food prices leave her stunned.

“I like a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables, but it’s getting so bad you can hardly afford it. An orange is $1.”

With few extras in her budget, she’s switched to cheaper soap and shampoo to save a few pennies. She also has put off needed dental work.

With no car, she relies on the bus or her feet to get around, so she was thrilled to find a free bicycle at Empty Tomb recently. It will also provide exercise, as her cancer medications caused her to gain a lot of weight.

A friend offered to deliver the bike to Spears’ house in Urbana, but it wouldn’t fit in her trunk. Undaunted, Spears thanked her and limped off happily toward the bus stop in her walking cast: She was just diagnosed with a broken foot.

She misses work but chooses to look at the bright side.

“You just have to grin and bear it,” she says. “Thank God I don’t have cancer today.”

A helping hand

Like other families in need, retiree Alma Smith knows where to go for help.

She spent a career helping others in her job with the Illinois Department of Public Aid, and she later volunteered at Empty Tomb and Salt and Light.

Now Smith, 66, shops there for food and clothes for her latest adopted child, a 5-year-old boy, and any neighbor who needs help. She agreed to take in the boy after his grandmother became ill. He’s smart as a whip, she says; he just “needs someone to work with him.”

Smith, who has three other adopted children, comes by the instinct naturally. Her mother had 12 children of her own and raised several more.

Smith suffers from asthma, emphysema and arthritis. She had hoped to move into a complex for seniors by now, but she held onto her house so the kids would have a yard to play in. Problem is, she bought it at a high interest rate, her only option at the time, and now is trying to convert it to a more affordable mortgage.

With high gas prices, she tends to stay home a lot. And her medicines are expensive, she says, breathing heavily in the midday heat.

“This kind of weather, I’m not supposed to be out.”

To make ends meet, she goes to Restoration Urban Ministries and other food pantries for canned goods and meat. She stretches her menu by substituting, making a pot of chicken soup for Fourth of July instead of grilling.

“I’m not looking for a steak dinner when soup suffices,” she says. “I go to free places and get as much help as I can. Children don’t need name-brand shoes and clothes.”

On this trip to Empty Tomb, she picks up toys and a blazer for a neighbor, which she will clean and press.

“I’m used to helping people.”

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