Area realities belie notion of prosperity for everyone

Jan 3, 2019

Tony Henry just doesn’t get it.

“We are simply overburdened with requests lately,” Henry wrote in an email last week. “The economy is on (a) roll, we are told, and unemployment at a [near] 50-year low. Just why is it we are being slammed?”

Two days a week, Henry sits in an office at St. Mary Mother of God Catholic Church and helps people get by. He sees a stream of visitors; after they describe their problem, he gets on the phone and tries to solve it. Or he writes a check to keep someone’s lights on. He calls a landlord and asks for a little more time for a tenant to pay the rent. He networks with others at churches and nonprofits around the city.

“St. Mary’s will put up half if you’ll put up half, or maybe we can go thirds with another church,” he cajoles someone in the office at another Catholic church as he tries to raise enough to cover a woman’s utility bill. He dials a colleague at the St. Vincent de Paul center. “I have a client whose kids are sleeping on the floor of their trailer.” Henry gets the young mother of five two box springs – mattresses to come later.

Henry contends it’s getting worse. “Why are we seeing so much poverty at our door?” he asks between clients. “I ask my colleagues, ‘Is it just me?’ ”

Those who work with the area’s struggling families report mixed indicators. A report released last week said there are dramatically fewer homeless people in Indiana, though those numbers are strongly disputed by some here. Are things slightly worse this holiday season, or slightly better?

Food needs may be down somewhat. Through its network of 26 food pantries in Allen County, Associated Churches distributed 1,006,800 meals from January through October; during the same period last year, that number was 1,100,610 – a decrease of 8 percent. Community Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Indiana saw its number of food clients taper by 7 percent in its nine-county service area during the past fiscal year. But there are still plenty of “working poor” to serve, said Community Harvest Executive President Carmen Cumberland. “They may have a job, as far as that goes, but they need assistance.”

“We see lots of needs,” said the Rev. Roger Reece, Associated Churches’ executive director. “We’re struggling to meet those needs. It’s difficult when there’s the prevailing misconception that everything’s blue sky.

“There’s another side of the economy that’s in shambles.”

The association distributed $11,000 in assistance to active military and National Guard families this year – an increase of 35 percent over 2016 and 2017, Reece said.

“Really, over the last several years nothing has changed from a needs prospect in the community,” said David Nicole, United Way of Allen County president and CEO. United Way’s 211 calls for housing, utility, food and health care assistance have remained steady, he said. “Sure, everybody’s working, but they’re working at a job that doesn’t afford the basic costs of living.”

How can you help? Give money through a charity or to your church. Volunteer. Pay attention to public policies that help or target low-income people, and let your voice be heard.

Thirteen percent of those in our community are in poverty, and about one in four of the rest of us, by United Way’s estimates, are one unexpected major expense from going under.

Day to day, they may seem invisible. But for them, this Christmas, prosperity is still the illusion.

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