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Safety net for poor unravels

 Lorrane Hansen, 6, of Hillyard, taste tests her meal at the Women's and Children's Free Restaurant at St. Paul's United Methodist Church. 
 (Brian Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Lorrane Hansen, 6, of Hillyard, taste tests her meal at the Women's and Children's Free Restaurant at St. Paul's United Methodist Church. (Brian Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Twice a week, Cindy Hansen and her three kids take the bus from their Hillyard home to eat dinner near the West Central neighborhood.

It’s a long way to go for a meal, she acknowledged, but the food tastes good and it’s free.

It’s the one meal that often tides them over until the food stamps arrive. Even then, Hansen brings her family to the Women’s and Children’s Free Restaurant – $185 in monthly food stamps doesn’t buy enough groceries to feed the two adults and three children in her household.

“We wouldn’t make it if we didn’t come here,” said Hansen, who along with her husband receives Supplemental Security Income because of their disabilities. “It’s just really hard.”

As political candidates spar over war, the economy and other issues, often missing in the debates are the problems that plague Hansen and millions of other Americans.

For the third year in a row, the poverty rate in this country has grown, according to recently released statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau. Last year, 35.9 million Americans – including 13 million children – lived in poverty. The average poverty threshold for a family of four in 2003 was $18,810, according to the census; $14,680 for a family of three; $12,015 for a family of two; and $9,393 for unrelated individuals.

In Spokane County, where census data show a steady increase in the number of impoverished people, nearly 17 percent of children were below the poverty line last year. In Idaho, poverty affected 17.6 percent of all kids.

With the reduction of state and federal funding for housing, job training and emergency assistance, the obligation to help the poor has been shifted to religious and nonprofit organizations, which often must struggle to find last-minute resources.

Four years ago, for instance, the Women’s and Children’s Free Restaurant served 4,600 meals, all made from scratch. By the end of this year, the nonprofit will have prepared 15,000 meals to thousands of low-income families. The restaurant receives no federal or state funding; it’s supported entirely by small grants and donations.

‘Fewer and fewer resources’

The remedy for poverty seems obvious: Boost the economy, create living-wage jobs, make health care accessible to all.

But until these long-term solutions are implemented, those who work with the poor say, people in government and the rest of society must do two things: have a better understanding of who the poor are, and ensure that a safety net is in place to assist those on the brink of falling deeper into poverty.

There’s a false perception out there that the poor are usually the homeless, said Scott Cooper of Catholic Charities. But the reality is, many of the impoverished in Spokane don’t live on the streets and beg for money, he said. Often, the poor are educated people with work histories. They’re families. Sometimes, they hold down one or more jobs but still don’t make enough to pay the bills and for groceries.

“All it takes is an illness combined with the car breaking down or less hours at work or some other bad luck, then you’re on the phone with me,” said Cooper, director of parish social ministries. Nearly everyone who calls Catholic Charities for help often begins the conversation by saying, “I didn’t think this would happen to me,” or “I’ve never had to do this before,” he said.

“Some politicians are not addressing the fact that work is no longer a guarantee of self-sufficiency,” Cooper said. “Work is good and yes, it is dignity. But when you’ve got to work and still need to go to the food bank, then what are we saying about work?”

Unfortunately, the 15 to 20 people who call Catholic Charities each day asking for help are often turned away. “I’ve never known it to be so tight, so grim,” Cooper said. “There are fewer and fewer resources available.”

In recent months, Second Harvest Inland Northwest has drawn a large number of families, including households where one or both adults work, said Anne Price, the food bank’s director of development and communications.

According to Second Harvest’s most recent survey, 64 percent of these parents give up food so their children can eat. Some had to skip at least one meal a month and as many as one-third said they sacrificed a meal a week because there wasn’t enough food for the entire family.

These families are the “invisible” poor, said Jason Clark, executive director of Second Harvest. “The poor aren’t strangers, they’re the folks you meet every day. Their kids sit next to your kids in the classroom.”

How to help

People often differ on how to provide a safety net for the poor: Some argue that improving the economy overall will eventually aid the poor. Others say it’s the government’s job to take care of its people, including the most vulnerable.

“Where is the humanity?” asked Joyce Wright, a retired social worker and one of the board members of the Women’s and Children’s Free Restaurant. “Why can’t we take the money for one stealth bomber and use it to help kids? We need to address the issues of poverty because what will we have when these children grow up?”

Those who work with children and the needy want people running for office to pay attention to their needs – even if kids can’t vote, even if most poor people don’t make it to the polls.

Wright and many others say the nation’s leaders need to re-examine and fund federal programs such as food stamps, Medicaid for kids, child-care subsidies and housing. They’re also encouraging those in office to continue funding mental health services, nutritional programs and the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program.

In 1997, the new welfare law included a provision that restricted the availability of food stamps for the unemployed. Many who work in area hunger programs say they know individuals who receive as little as $10 in food stamps a month.

With child-care expenses ranging from $4,000 to $10,000 a year, many low-income families can’t afford to send their children to licensed day cares, Wright pointed out. Last year, Washington Gov. Gary Locke slashed $8 million in child-care subsidies and other welfare-to-work programs to make up for a shortfall in the state welfare budget.

Stagnant state funding has also meant fewer slots in ECEAP, a state program that offers preschool and family support services to the poor. Statewide, thousands of needy children have been turned away since funding was reduced three years ago.

Clark of Second Harvest suggested that those in office should strengthen the federal USDA programs, as well as the state-funded Emergency Food Assistance Program. He also advocated implementing a tax break for companies, wholesalers and manufacturers that donate food to organizations like Second Harvest.

“They’re making the choice to do the right thing,” said Clark. “We need to reward that giving activity.”

Kathy Reed, social service director for St. Vincent de Paul in Coeur d’Alene, wishes Idaho would provide as many services for the hungry and homeless as Washington state.

When she has to turn people away, she often tells them to go to Spokane. “It’s pretty bleak over here,” she said, describing how a 60-year-old woman with a brain tumor recently came to the shelter because she had no other refuge until her SSI application was approved.

‘Hunger cannot wait’

Florrie Brassier of the Northwest Fair Housing Alliance, a nonprofit housing and human rights agency, expressed her dismay over recent cuts to Section 8 housing, a government program that helps with the rent for nearly 2 million poor families. The cuts are expected to affect 1,755 Washington households, according to the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, a Seattle group.

Brassier wants people running for office to focus on continued enforcement of the fair housing laws. When there isn’t enough housing available for low-income people, discriminatory practices happen, she said. “People put up with more because they need a place to live,” she said.

Until poverty becomes the focus for those running for office, families will continue to struggle, said Wright. Parents will be forced to put their children at risk by sending them to unlicensed day cares, senior citizens will have to give up food for prescription drugs, kids will sometimes go to bed hungry, she said.

And unless government takes a more active role, many who work in social services said that the burden to help the poor will remain on nonprofits, which also feel the pinch of scarcity.

“There are things in life that can wait – nice clothes, a nice house, toys and a vacation,” said Elsa Leiva, one of the diners at the Women’s and Children’s Free Restaurant. “But hunger cannot wait. My children do not understand why we eat the same thing over and over. Or why do we go to the store and buy nothing except get a free cookie. When children are hungry, they ask the parent for food and it is very hard for a parent not to be able to provide enough food to eat.”


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