The church I serve is in downtown Pittsfield. Its size makes it hard to miss.
I recently relocated my office from the back of the church to the front. In fact my window faces the primary public entrance to the building. Given the location and the size, we get people practically every day looking for some sort of assistance.
We’ve been handing out $25 gift cards to a local supermarket within walking distance of the church. It’s mid-June and we’ve probably given out over $300 already. On Tuesdays we give out food from our food pantry. People also call or come by looking for help with utility bills or rent.
When I can, I like to meet the people who come. I invite them into my office to sit and talk. They tell me their stories.
Each story is like a small tile. Some are on disability; I’ve met several who have problems with their legs. Some lost their housing when they lost their job or their landlord was foreclosed. Some had a disruption in their disability checks or social security. Put them together and they create a mosaic that reveals a really broken system of support. It’s haphazard at best. It seems Kafkaesque, nightmarishly complex and illogically bizarre.
Many people come from a homeless shelter on the north side of town, a good walk from Pittsfield’s main business district. Between the shelter and the church, the distance exceeds 2.5 miles. They can’t stay at the shelter during the day (I don’t know why precisely), so they leave and walk. Of course, Pittsfield doesn’t have a lot of places where people can just be from 8:00 AM to 4:30 PM as that activity shifts from just hanging out to loitering.
Many people who come ask for the $25 gift card. Realistically, it won’t come close to solving their problems. Recently, after talking with a young man who came for a card, it became clearer that he needed transportation in order to find work. I was able to get him a bus pass, which because we have a zone system, it could be exhausted before the end of a week.
Think about this man’s situation for a moment. He can’t get a job because he has no transportation. He has to pay for it, but he earns no money because he doesn’t have a job. See? Basically, he needs a job in order to have money so he can get to his job.
Giving people food is a godsend. But without transportation, they can’t take a lot of it, just a few pounds or whatever they can carry the 2.5+ miles home. It means that every couple of days they have to go out to gather food again – it’s the modern-day equivalent of the hunter-gatherer society. Also, their choices from the food pantries tend to be non-perishables: canned vegetables, tomato sauce, pasta, rice, beans, or tuna fish. The grocery cards enable them to supplement their food pantry supplies with fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, and dairy, which typically are not distributed through the food pantries.
But I’ve learned that while people are grateful for food, we can be more effective in helping them. Within a short walk of my church I can count four food pantries, including one at the South Congregational Church, UCC, just across the street. South Congregational Church is a better food pantry as they have access to supplies from the Western Massachusetts Food Bank.
People I’ve talked with tell me that they have to use their gift cards to purchase toiletries: soap, shampoo, shaving cream, deodorant, toothpaste, sometimes disposable diapers, etc. With several food pantries in Pittsfield and almost all of them giving out basically the same stuff, having one location giving out toiletries would be very helpful. Giving out toiletries would enable people with the gift cards to put the entire amount to food. And if I needed confirmation, I found out yesterday that even though the local United Methodist Church distributes food after the Tuesday night public supper they hold, the next day they have to go through the building to replace all the toilet paper that was taken from the restrooms.
The most Kafkaesque story came from two men, they’re twins, who are homeless. One of them will have surgery on his leg next week.
One of the men is supposed to receive social security and a supplement that only comes because the recipient receives social security. His social security is over $600 per month and the supplement is $30 per month. For some reason, social security isn’t coming, but his supplement is. (So, his monthly income is $30.)
The two brothers applied for Section 8 housing. They were told there is a long waiting list for two-bedroom apartments, but there are one-bedroom apartments right now. They can’t get the one-bedroom apartment because they’re two men, even though a husband and wife could get the one-bedroom. They noted that they’ve shared a bedroom since childhood.
Meanwhile, the one getting surgery can’t stay in the shelter after his hospitalization to recover because they are not equipped to provide him an environment suitable for recovery. Of course, if he had an apartment, this would be completely different.
The mosaic is Bizarro World. You don’t see it without having lived it or heard the stories from those who are in it. And you realize that that world is more complex than we can imagine. Their world was created, probably with good intention, by people who never saw the mosaic.
This whole thing reminds me that we’ll never really get to address poverty in this nation, the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, if we continue to live in separate worlds. At least the church provides a place where everyone can share their stories and hopefully working together we will achieve the beloved community God desires for us.