Putting a face on the bleak reality of poverty

MIKE LITTWIN

November 27, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

The professionals say people need real stories of real people to understand. I've got stories.

I can tell you about this woman who has to decide between paying her fuel bill or buying food for her kids. In the hunger trade, they call it eat vs. heat. She's got two kids, works part-time, husband's laid off. She tells you how she waters down the soup she feeds her kids. She tells you about how she has to ration the milk they drink. There's not enough money to go around.

Is that a real enough story for you about life the way it shouldn't be?

It's a story that gets told this time of year, a make-or-break time for charities. It's the holiday time -- the giving time. I don't have to tell you that. Wherever you look, there's a hand out. Give. Please give. Please give more.

Numbers don't work. Somebody tells us there are 600 food pantries and soup kitchens in Maryland (up from 50 a decade ago) and our eyes glaze over. We don't dig into our pockets. There are 61,000 kids under 12 in Maryland who are regularly hungry. It's a hard number. We wince, maybe, when we hear it, just as we wince when we see the United Way campaign coming up short.

But we want names, faces. We want to understand poverty in human terms.

I've got stories. I get the names and the faces and the stories from the people who raise the money. They put people like me in touch with people in need to touch the hearts of people like you.

And so, we meet Willy Williams. He's 45. Seems like an ordinary enough man. He lost his job working for a sanitation company, although he's a little hazy about the hows and whys. He says his marriage was breaking up and, in his words, he started dropping and didn't stop till he hit bottom.

He lost his job. He got public assistance and lost that. He lived on the streets for a while. He's got a place to live now, but he eats in soup kitchens, the eatery of last resort. He works in one, too. He works wherever he can to raise a few bucks. He sold his rings, his watch, whatever he owned to raise money. He borrowed from friends. He says he always found a way to make his child-support payments.

"Made the last one last week," he says.

I ask him how it feels to be hungry.

"It's frustrating," Williams says. "It's painful. It hurts right in the gut. And it does something to your soul. When you can't feed yourself, you're at the bottom. You're beaten down, and you don't know if you can get back up. It's your pride, your dignity."

He looks me in the eye when he talks. I look right back. I've seen the face.

The Maryland Food Committee, which is in the fund-raising business as well as serving as an effective advocate for the hungry, recruited Williams to tell his story on camera at a press conference called the other day to say how some food pantries and soup kitchens are now being forced to turn hungry people away.

There were doctors on hand to explain the debilitating impact of hunger on children and on pregnant women. They discussed the social costs, the moral costs. They sounded the right message.

But it was Williams and a few others who have experienced hunger who were the focus. One woman wouldn't go on camera. Perhaps she was ashamed. It's a nasty business, asking people to expose their lives this way. Imagine how you would feel.

Williams is not ashamed. He was nervous, though, and when he went before the TV cameras, he didn't say all he wanted to.

"I'm here because I know what it's like," he would say later. "I know what it's like to be out on the street. I know what it's like to be hungry. I want to help solve this problem. I work at St. Martin's [soup kitchen], and we serve 320 people a day. $H Sometimes, we have to turn people away because there's just no food left. They'll be begging for something, anything. A slice of bread, a cup of water. When you've got to beg for a slice of bread, you know it's bad.

"There's the poor, the poor, and the poor. You get beat down so far you don't think you can ever get up. I go out there every day, sometimes walking 4 or 5 miles, looking for work. It's been six months and it's hard. But I don't give up. My morals and my principles don't let me give up.

"I know it's going to get better. It has to get better."

He's a real person. His life is a real life. Six months ago, he was a lot like you and me.

"I had no idea my life would ever get this way," he says.

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