By CARL E. FEATHER - Lifestyle Editor - firstname.lastname@example.org
A winter wind blew across the parking lot of the Neighbor to Neighbor Food Pantry next to St. Joseph’s Church in Ashtabula; the six adults lined up at the door turned their faces from the wind, toward the metaphoric concrete wall of the building.
Acustomed to being between the proverbial rock and a hard place, they were downcast and unhappy about having to seek a hand-out. No one was smiling. For some, the Friday morning visit to the food pantry is a monthly appointment. For a 50-some woman wearing a black fleece top and jeans, her graying black hair rising with the wind, it was a new experience. She’d always managed to pay her own way; it wasn’t going to happen this month, however.
“Just because I work and get paid doesn’t mean it pays all my bills,” said the woman, who didn’t want to be identified. “They don’t realize that more goes out than comes in. This winter, I don’t know whether to heat the house or put gas in my car.”
The woman works 40 hours a week, in a chain retail store. She’s been there six years and earns $7.42 an hour after the 20-cent raise she got in 2007.
“Isn’t that a shame,” she says. “Good God, they expect you to live on that.”
Do the math, that’s $296 a week, $15,433 a year, IF she works full-time, which she does not. The woman expected to have her hours cut after the Christmas holiday, returning her to part-time status, which carries no benefits.
“What do they think we are supposed to do? Everything is going up,” she asks.
According the 2006 estimate from the U.S. Census Bureau, 16.7 percent of the individuals, and 11.8 percent of the families, in Ashtabula County were living below the poverty level. Those are the highest rates of any lakeshore county in Ohio, including Cuyahoga County, where the rates are 14.8 and 11.4 percent, respectively.
The poor is a growing population, as well. Census figures from 2000 showed 12.1 percent of individuals and 9.2 percent of families in Ashtabula County were at or below the poverty line.
Poverty is creeping up in the United States, but at a slower rate than in Ashtabula County. In 2000, the U.S. rate for individuals was 12.4 percent; in 2006, it was 13.3.
The county’s 13 food pantries and five soup kitchens are this population’s safety valve: Food is the one commodity the poor can still get free in America.
“It’s easier to cheat your belly than it is some of the other things,” says Dianna Bradbury, director of food-bank operations for Ashtabula County.
Bradbury backs what individual food pantry coordinators are saying: Demand is up, and the pantries are seeing more and more new faces every month. Many of those faces are of the working poor.
“It has changed over the years,” says Bradbury, who comes from an 11-year perspective of the system. “It’s not just someone who comes in here and is on welfare. They do have a job; it might only pay minimum wage, but they do have a job.”
Bradbury says Ashtabula County’s food pantries served 28,578 persons in 2007. In 2006 the number was 26,198. In terms of households, in 2007 the pantries served 5,438 households with children and 4,696 without.
“I’m seeing more older people come in,” she says. “The rest are pretty much even. I’m seeing age 60 and up with children increase. I’m seeing more grandparents raising their grandchildren.”
Bradbury says there was an increase of 251 households 60 and older with children over the previous year. Anecdotally, she knows many of these situations are created by parents involved in drugs and unable to provide a safe environment for their children.
Last year Job and Family Services held special distributions of food for recipients of Ohio Works First (Temporary Assistance for Needy). Persons eligible for the program have incomes under 100 percent of the federal poverty guidelines.
At the August distribution, 300 families were served. Ninety were served at the November distribution.
“I’m raising two granddaughters,” said a 65-year-old female recipient at the November distribution. “Their mother is on drugs.”
A 40-year-old woman said the food would help stretch her very tight budget.
“When you go looking for full-time work, all you can find is part time,” she said. She’s resorted to driving a taxi while trying to gain some technical skills at the Ashtabula County Joint Vocational School.
“The economy is bad,” said a young woman. “It’s hard. A lot of people who normally would not need it are needing it now.”
Individuals are allowed one food pantry order per month. Eligibility is determined by household size and income. For a family of two, the cap is $27,379.
“I generally find that people are not even close to what a family of two can make,” says Alice Hardin, service center coordinator at the Ashtabula Salvation Army. “They laugh when I show them that number. They say, ‘I wish we could make that kind of money.’”
The Lake Avenue service center will place 36,000 plates of food before soup-kitchen users during a typical 12-month period. They will provide another 13,000 meals from the food pantry and assist 1,115 persons with utility assistance: gas and electric only. Another 369 persons will receive help with prescription services. Hardin says a particularly disturbing trend is the increase in seniors seeking help. Crunched by rising fuel and medication costs, they are coming into the soup kitchen and food pantry discouraged and confused. Accustomed to paying their own way, they face the pride-piercing task of asking for assistance.
“They’ve never done this before, and they don’t know where to ask for help. They’ve never done a food pantry request. But there is stress in their budgets. I had one whose $229 propane order went to $289. That little bit of difference knocked their whole budget completely out.”
Hardin says she’s also seeing an increase in single mothers and Hispanics.
“The amount of people coming through here is increasing every month,” she says. “I’m seeing people I’ve never seen before: people who have lost their job, lost their home. It is scary here in this town. Everything is increasing except our funding, which is decreasing.”
Lack of work
The two-story former fabric warehouse that houses G.O. Ministries is ground zero for poverty in Ashtabula. The blighted building, the tattered neighborhood and the battered cars in the parking lot reek of poverty. The first-floor dining room is dim, drab and depressingly silent; clients have little to say as they sign in and line up for food. Even the spaghetti, pizza and day-old cupcakes lack the joy normally associated with food.
G.O. Ministries has a clothing ministry, food pantry and soup kitchen that serves an evening meal, plus whatever leftovers are made available for breakfast and lunch drop-ins.
Signs around the building set forth rules of use: The phone is not public, and coffee costs 10 cents a cup to help defray the cost of the container, creamer and sugar. If you want a second cup, it will cost a quarter. The meal is free.
Maverick Naylor keeps an eye on the dining room as clients file through the line and take their seats. In the far back corner, a single mother watches as her five children eat slices of pizza donated by area shops. She’s been unemployed for five months and can’t find work. The free meal takes some pressure off a miniscule budget that mostly consists of entitlements from the state.
“It helps, it really helps,” she says of the free meal.
She’s been looking for nursing home or home-health work. She’s not picky.
“It’s terrible,” she says. “The say we’re not hiring right now. We’re not taking applications right now. We’ll call you.”
Lack of work is a common issue with clients who come through the ministries’ door.
“We need more jobs and less drugs – no drugs,” Naylor says.
“There are no jobs,” he continues. “All the companies are leaving and going to other states. We need jobs. The way it’s going, it’s going to be a ghost town here.”
G.O. Ministries was founded by John Salters, a Cleveland native and contractor who saw in Ashtabula the hopelessness born of poverty. He started G.O. Ministries to address the issue. Thirteen years later, Salters has a building from which he can do his work, but he is frustrated by the lack of progress in transforming lives. The waves of new need destroy the sand castles long before they are built.
“We’re ready to move to the next stage,” says Salters, setting forth the ministry’s mission to provide job training and placement assistant. “But it is taking all our resources just to try to keep the people going,” Salters says.
He feels there is more poverty in the county and more working people yet unable to make ends meet than at any point in the ministries’ history.
“There are obviously a lot of homeless people, people who don’t have jobs or have a very small income,” he says. “But we do see some people who have jobs. They don’t make a lot of money, and this is a way they can stretch their budget, by getting help with meals.”
On the other side of town, Ashtabula’s Dream Center food pantry assists between 100 and 120 families a month. The soup kitchen serves 800 meals in that same period.
“The real problem is you get a job, and you are only making minimum wage, and you can’t live off that,” says Brian Hommes, director of the Ashtabula Dream Center at West 57th Street. “It seems like in this county, you either make a lot of money or minimum wage.”
See POVERTY, B2
Between $6 million and $8 million flows through Ashtabula County Community Action every year, says Richard Pepperney, its executive director. The agency’s programs range from Head Start and child-health services to home-delivered meals for the elderly and utility assistance. The agency employs 180 associates, making it one of the county’s major employers.
The Head Start program, which serves children ages 3 to 5 whose parents are at, or below, 100 percent of the poverty level, runs at capacity: 371 children. While the stereotype of a Head Start parent is someone on public assistance, the statistics show otherwise. Of the 339 families enrolled in Ashtabula County Head Start at the end of 2007, 45 percent had a parent working full time and 19 percent had a parent working part time. Eight percent of the parents were in higher education or other training.
Likewise for the WIC program, which serves Women, Infants and Children who are at or below 185 percent of poverty. The program has 3,600 participants in Ashtabula County.
“There are a lot of working folks who use WIC as a nutritional supplement,” Pepperney says.
Stephanie Patriarco is director of the county’s Head Start program. She says many of the families she works with are in their situations because of environment, bad choices and lack of opportunity. The good news is that assistance is available with child care and education expenses to help the poor improve their lot in life.
Becky Coder, a family services coordinator with Head Start, lacked a high school diploma when she started accessing the program’s services 23 years ago. With encouragement and empowerment from a program worker, Coder got her general equivalency diploma and a driver’s license, was hired by Head Start and earned her associate’s degree. She’s now working on her bachelor’s.
Pepperney has seen these success stories occur over and over at Head Start, which has a substantial number of former clients working as service providers.
“We help parents realize they can set goals and go back to school,” says Gloria King, a Head Start family services coordinator. “We share our lives with them and help them realize they can do it.”
Patriarco feels there is an unfair stereotyping of the county’s poor families that often leads to resentment.
“What I see happening is everybody gets lumped together,” she says. “Someone has a bad experience with someone who is low-income, and then everybody who is low-income is labeled, even though you did absolutely nothing to give that person that impression.”
“Nobody starts out thinking ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to be low income?’ Nobody starts there,” Pepperney says. “But things happen, and it just becomes very difficult to get out.”