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Ready to Rip

As the gap between the rich and poor grows, and funds to help those in need are cut, local agencies wonder how much longer they can hold on

by Erin Pihlaja on December 12, 2013

Photo by Erin Pihlaja

“This program has grown from year to year to year. We are bursting at the seams,” says Rev. Deb Jameson. “Programs like this just keep getting bigger. I’m not sure how we’re going to be able to sustain it.”

Jameson sits at a small round table with a few others, including Albany’s mayor-elect Kathy Sheehan. Not counting the informal gathering, this is an otherwise normal Tuesday morning at the Westminster Presbyterian Church on State Street, which is one of six other churches that are a part of the Focus Churches of Albany network.

Most of the people in the room are either here to eat or serve breakfast, part of the regular food program of the church. Service started at 7 AM, and a handful of people are still sitting down to a hot, and free, meal after 8 AM.

“There was line waiting at 7 AM,” says Jameson, not that that’s unusual. It happens before every service. “These are people eating before work. The program is the biggest it’s ever been, we have an average of 150 people at the soup kitchen breakfast three mornings a week.”

Jameson is the director of the food program for the Focus churches. “It’s almost 30 years old and started in the ’80s because the Reagan administration dismantled human services enough that the safety net was ripped open,” she says. “People were actually knocking on the church door asking for help. This was supposed to be a temporary patch.”

Another Focus church, Emmanuel Baptist Church, also on State Street, serves as the network’s food pantry. Jameson has been with the organization for 14 years, and she’s seen a lot of faces through the years. “At the food pantry, and mind you—this is Center Square—we have 375-400 families a month come in for a six-day supply of food. This is the hidden poor among us.” She pauses.

“And we’re a block away from a legislative office building. There are so many people here just in need of basic food.”

Jameson is aware of what should be an obvious point. Center Square is one of the most desirable neighborhoods in the city of Albany. Streets here are lined with historic and well-maintained buildings, and sprinkled with boutiques and restaurants. Nestled among those in homes with assessed values that exceed hundreds of thousands of dollars are those who work two jobs and still can’t feed themselves. Those who have to explain to their young children at the end of the night that there just isn’t anything else left to eat. Those who wake up the next day to start the brutal cycle all over again.

“We are beginning the season at the level we expect to see at the end of the program,” says Mark Dunlea, executive director for the Hunger Action Network of New York State. “It always gets worse, around the holidays. There’s less stigma about asking for help around the holidays. After the cut on Nov.1 at the federal level, it’s already having an impact.” He references cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

“The SNAP program was formerly called food stamps,” says Jameson. “It’s under the gun right now and it got chopped once in November. There are 49 million people on food stamps in this country, and that’s how they make it to the end of the month.”

“It cut $36 for a family of four on SNAP,” says Dunlea. “That’s a bag of food for three days. Most people run out on the 20th of the month.” The program wasn’t set up to provide people a total food budget, Dunlea adds, but expenses for housing and utilities are also grossly underestimated, and when the paycheck is gone, it’s gone.

At Westminster, the Tuesday breakfast service is coming to a close, but the conversation between Jameson, Sheehan, other advocates, and a few individuals who use the food program is just getting started.

Sheehan asks if there are many children who come for food. The exchange that follows is heartbreaking. Many families rely on services like these, and often the problem isn’t a scarcity of food, but rather a way to distribute it.

Sheehan brings up a program brought to Albany schools where children who were identified as being in need would get a backpack full of food to bring home to their families to get through the weekend. While their fellow students packed up assignments, these kids carried the responsibility of feeding their entire families on their tiny shoulders. But even that program is under threat.

“We needed around 500 backpacks,” Sheehan says. But it turns out that there weren’t enough volunteers to pack and deliver them. “With volunteer levels they thought they could start with around 60.”

“Imagine being the teacher who has to decide which kid gets fed,” someone remarks.

“We have 847 kids who would qualify for that right now,” says another.

Universal pre-k has helped to create a small safety net for some of these children. But as Sheehan points out, as of Monday (Dec. 9), there were still more than 200 kids in Albany on the waiting list for the program.

This dialogue isn’t new, but it’s one that’s starting to become part of our public, and political, discussion. “Bill de Blasio [mayor-elect of New York City] campaigned on income inequality . . . the tale of two cities,” says Sheehan. “Here it’s the tale of two regions. We have a concentration of poverty in the cities and are surrounded by wealthy suburbs. We have an opportunity to make this the issue we talk about in New York City, Syracuse, and Rochester—we’re all seeing it. We’re all living it.”

“So we should be working when?” asks a man at the table who identifies himself as a resident of Albany for 59 years, who is currently unemployed and looking for work.

The notion that people who use social services are avoiding work is disputed in this room. Three men sit across from Sheehan, one is dressed in a uniform from a local convenience store chain. All of them want jobs. Real jobs.

Mary Anne Gronau, commissioner of the Rensselaer County One Stop program, says that unemployment rates in New York state and in Rensselaer County have gone down since last year. The program assists those looking for work, including the underemployed who, like those who have stopped looking for work, are not included in those statistics.

“We have people who have been on unemployement for a long time, and extended unemployemnt is slated to expire at the end of December,” she says. “Our goal is to return people to work as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

But the program does see many people who have jobs and are still struggling to find something to make ends meet. “The minimum wage hike will go into effect on Dec. 30,” she says. “It’s hardly a big jump, but it’s a jump. It’s still not a living wage though, and many people are still going to seek services.”

“We need to increase the minimum wage and get access to jobs,” says Sheehan. “We had an opportunity to raise the minimum wage the right way and it didn’t happen. We could have tied it to the cost of living—take the politics out of it.”

“We weren’t happy with minimum wage increase,” says Dunlea. “The workers we represent don’t even get paid minimum wage. Two-thirds of minimum wage workers have money stolen out of their paychecks every pay period from employers shortchanging them.”

The answers seem simple, almost downright proverbial. It comes down to jobs and education, or the old “teach a man to fish” concept. But with program funding constantly under fire, the gap between those with and without seems overwhelming. Income inequality is this country is the highest that most of us have the lifespan to recall. If the trend continues, those who are helping right now may have no choice but to turn their back on those in need.

“The Farm Bill is still up in the air, and no matter what they decide it’s going to be a cut to the food stamp program,” says Jameson. The U.S. Farm Bill is an agricultural and food measure that is routinely revamped by Congress—and food-stamp funding is included in the overall budget.

Jameson tries to stay positive; she believes that there are enough resources to go around, but she also knows that things cannot continue as they are. “We anticipate more and more people using the emergency food program and us just not being able to handle it,” she says.