Let's find way to eliminate need for soup kitchens

June 11, 1998|By Robert V. Hess

MUCH of the dialogue surrounding the possible relocation of the Our Daily Bread soup kitchen characterizes the drama as one of pro-business and anti-poor people vs. the anti-business poor and their advocates. In reality, most people fall into neither camp. No reasonable person wants to see another person hungry or homeless, and no reasonable person wants to see businesses fail.

The conversation about Our Daily Bread is a distraction from the real issues. Neither moving Our Daily Bread nor keeping it on Cathedral Street will fulfill the needs of those it serves or rid the area of panhandling and crime. The number of soup kitchens in Maryland has grown from about 60 in 1980 to more than 900, and hunger is still with us.

But this conversation is a welcome and timely distraction. How often does poverty make the front page? We hope that this public discussion of Our Daily Bread will provoke a constructive dialogue about how to eliminate the need for soup kitchens, not just where to locate them. The real issue is how we can ensure that every individual can live with dignity. What better time to raise the visibility of poverty than now, as the City Council is about to consider making sleeping outdoors illegal, and our society struggles with the consequences of welfare reform.

Merging forces

This issue is especially timely for us at the Maryland Food Committee and Action for the Homeless because we recently announced that we will merge to form the Center for Poverty Solutions. When we announced this, some people responded that "poverty solutions" is an oxymoron. But we are not convinced that we have to accept the permanence of poverty. This, after all, is a nation known for its wealth and ingenuity. Baltimore has a history of providing stellar food and housing programs, programs such as WIC (Women, Infants and Children), which have become models for the nation.

We can continue this legacy by facing the facts about poverty in Baltimore and taking action -- such as a summit of community leaders -- to address its root causes.

First, despite this nation's strong economy, poverty is alive and well. According to the 1990 census, more than 21 percent of Baltimore residents live in poverty, including 32 percent of city children.

Second, poverty is not an abstract issue. Poverty is men, women and children whose life opportunities, health and hope are often diminished by their circumstances.

Third, the root cause of poverty is not laziness. More than 30 percent of those who eat in soup kitchens and between 17 percent and 20 percent of those sleeping in shelters have jobs. Some of the others seeking assistance are physically or mentally disabled, individuals who became homeless when the government forced them out of institutions without first establishing adequate community support systems. Whatever the reasons for their predicament, individuals living in shelters and eating in soup kitchens have more fortitude than most of us. Imagine carrying your possessions and children around with you from place to place, seeking health care, legal assistance or even a bathroom.

I was in a transitional shelter the other night, and a man came in waving his arm and yelling. When he calmed down, he announced that he was holding the key to his new apartment. Everyone in the place cheered.

What I have been thinking about since then is how close we are on this issue. No one likes poverty, least of all the people living in it. We all have a vested interest in the success of that man waving around his apartment key, in moving people from being dependent on our tax dollars to contributing to our tax base.

We can help people make this move. If we can come together to build a football stadium, an Inner Harbor development or symphony hall, irrespective of costs, the same kind of will and determination can solve our social problems.

Plan of action

We propose these actions:

Review and implement successful models from other cities.

A committee of community, business, religious and government leaders should look at how other cities (such as San Francisco and Seattle) have coupled physical development with projects to relieve homelessness and hunger. Action for the Homeless and the Maryland Food Committee, working with others, have started identifying successful models for Baltimore to consider. We're considering the possible development of a Baltimore version of New York's Times Square Hotel, a downtown housing complex for homeless people, the elderly and students that offers a range of social services. Also, we're studying the development of Maryland Community Kitchen, which would use food donated from institutions and businesses to train people who are or have been homeless in food service jobs.

Secure a commitment from the business community to pay workers a living wage and to review its other employment policies (such as replacing full-time workers with benefits with part-time or temporary workers without benefits) for their impact.

Create a support system for the poorest of the poor, including those who are disabled.

At the center of all three recommendations is the idea that we must address poverty from our heads as well as our hearts. How we face homelessness and poverty defines who we are as a society and how strong we will be in the future. Imagine our world today without the civil rights and women's rights movements. Our next great divide to conquer is economic.

Let us come together now, with determination and focus, to demonstrate our commitment to the American ideal of equal opportunity . . . beginning with ensuring equal opportunity to the basics of food, shelter and hope.

Robert Hess is executive director of Action for the Homeless and president and chief executive officer of the Maryland Food Committee.

Pub Date: 6/11/98

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