The long-term unemployed often find that they must make many adjustments. For some, this may mean moving to another city or a distant state in the wake of losing the family home to foreclosure or after being unable to make the rent. Extended family and friends may find themselves stuffing together into small living spaces as an alternative to homelessness. Young folks may despair at the necessity of returning to the parental nest, while the more mature among us may find ourselves couch surfing, pursuing house sitting arrangements or searching Craigslist for ever more roommates.
Paying for utilities can become problematic. Americans living in the Northeast and Midwest are grateful that the cold, snowy winter is now gone, for a few more months anyway. Even here in California, low income families regularly experience difficulty in paying the gas and electric bill. I remember how, nearly twenty years ago now, as a single guy working for a low hourly wage, I moved into a new apartment only to be warned by my next door neighbor that her electric bill had been exceeding $500 per month due to the need to run the air conditioning constantly in our hot summer. To avoid such a calamity, I sweated through the summer without turning on the A/C. When winter arrived, I discovered that the heat had been turned off because the previous tenants had run out without paying the bill. My landlord refused to assist me and I was unable to soften the hearts of the utility people. So I piled on the blankets, quilts and coats at night and managed to get through without incurring heating costs. I couldn’t help but wonder how the poor survive in the below-zero temperatures of Minnesota and the Dakotas.
Living in the parsonage of a church, we get a front row seat to some of the adjustments that the jobless and homeless are forced to make. Homeless Guy #2’s on-again, off-again relationship with his wife is currently off again. Although he’s been living in his car, I understand he’s now indoors, sharing living quarters with one of my nephews. They share similar interests, such as construction, carpentry, barbecuing, playing the guitar and singing, so it seems to be a good match. Both are unemployed.
Homeless Guy #1 still shows up at our door quite often. He may ask to use the church rest room or to do some odd jobs for a few bucks. The other day, he rang our doorbell in the morning and again at night. The second time, he asked for three dollars in exchange for a small plastic bag containing a few soda cans that we could supposedly redeem. We told him no because the cans weren’t worth anywhere near three dollars, because we’d have to drive two towns over to take them to the recycling place, and because we were more than a little annoyed that he had woken us up for that.
Homeless Guy #1 still lives in a tent in the far corner of his mother’s back yard. However, he seems to have acquired a tentmate, his cousin, whom we’ll call Homeless Guy #3. Number Three showed up at our door on Sunday to beg for ten dollars for food to get by until he gets his disability check. We told him that none of us are working and that we can’t spare ten dollars. We offered him a peanut butter sandwich, which he gratefully accepted. We gave him two PB&Js, two bananas and half a package of cookies, and sent him on his way.
Homeless Guy #2 has been spending a lot of time over here lately, working hard on badly needed repairs to the church building and doing a wonderful job. The church has been paying him for his labor and we have been keeping him fed. As for Homeless Guy #1, we heard him yelling and carrying on from the other side of the fence late last night. We are aware of his anger management problem, which became manifest in banging and kicking the fence, accompanied by a lengthy string of obscenities, not a few of them directed toward the church and the “holy roller” occupants thereof. I thought about calling law enforcement, but instead we simply locked the doors, knowing that eventually he’d calm down and go to sleep in his tent.
When I stepped out of the shower this morning, I immediately identified the sound of visitors. My niece, nephew and little grandniece were here, and soon enough my nephew’s girlfriend and her sister showed up. My niece had overdone it at the gym and needed us to babysit Little One for a while so that she could take a hot shower and assuage her sore muscles. Pastor Mom headed to the kitchen and started cooking pancakes and eggs. We never know who will show up here to be fed, whether family, friends or local homeless people.
Now that I’ve been out of work for eight months, we find ourselves having to make an increasing number of lifestyle adjustments. For the first time in our married lives, my wife and I have only one car between us. And we finally had the cable TV turned off, keeping only internet service so that I can continue to search for jobs online.
But food is where it has started to get really interesting. We try to stick to our monthly food budget, but some of that money has a way of going toward other things, and we sometimes go over. My wife says that my veganism is costing us too much, and she is probably right. Even limiting purchases of things like veggie dogs, meatless meatballs and vegan margarine, we still have to buy almond milk and tofu for me. It doesn’t help, my wife points out, that I refuse to eat eggs, one of the cheapest sources of protein around. Canned beans are also cheap, so I am working on eating more of those instead of placing Boca burgers, TVP “chicken” and tofu on the grocery list again.
Today, however, we crossed a line for the first time: We visited a local food bank for a handout. I’m in new and unfamiliar territory now. I have never had to ask for this kind of help before, and I didn’t quite know what to expect.
The main food bank in this area wasn’t distributing today and, anyway, we aren’t sure whether we have the right documentation that is required to cut through their impressive red tape. When I called, they suggested that we visit a particular church a couple of towns over. When we did so, they informed us that they had suspended food distributions because it would be another month or so before they receive another food delivery. They sent us to another church, the big Presbyterian one that, ironically, is right next door to one of the largest supermarkets in the area.
Walking down the path from the parking lot, I found my way to a door labeled Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard. Upon opening said door, I was told to wait my turn outside and that someone would come get me shortly. There was one client ahead of me. In just a few minutes, an intake worker came out with her clipboard and forms. We walked over to a bench near the church playground and sat down. Somewhat sheepishly, I volunteered my story of having been laid off, having run through my unemployment benefits and having been unable to find work despite my best efforts. She empathized, but none of that information appeared to be necessary. All she needed was the names and Social Security numbers of everyone in the household, our address and my phone number. Then she handed me the form she had been working on and sent me inside to collect my food. This seemed almost too easy. I mean, aren’t they supposed to make this humiliating or something? Where was all the red tape from the big area food bank?
In the office, I sat across the desk from another volunteer, who looked at the form, made a quick phone call, and hollered out to the guy behind a movable divider (yet another volunteer) to make up a food package for three. Meanwhile, near the door were bins of grapefruits, to which I was urged to help myself. I could hardly believe it. I am crazy about grapefruit and try to eat one every day! But how many should I take? Ah, now the humility was really kicking in. I explained that we have never had to ask for help of any kind before and that I have no clue as to how many grapefruit would be appropriate for the three of us. After all, I said, I don’t want to take more than my share and thereby leave others without. Take as many as you want, I was told, as they’re just going to go bad.
Indeed, some of the grapefruit had seen better days. Most of them, however, were in perfectly fine condition. They didn’t look like store-bought grapefruit, either. They seemed to have been recently plucked from someone’s tree, with pieces of stem and a leaf or two still clinging to some pieces of fruit. I filled up one plastic bag, was invited to take more, and filled up a second bag. In all, I took away fifteen grapefruit. Apparently, they were just glad that I took them off their hands. One might say that I obliged heartily, as there were only a few grapefruit left in the bins when I got done with them.
The guy behind the divider called out to ask if I would use some powdered milk. “I guess so,” I said tentatively. “I’m very grateful to take whatever you have available.” I hadn’t even seen powdered milk since I was a child and my mother kept some on hand in case of blizzards. “You can cook with it,” added the clerk behind the desk, helpfully.
The packer pushed a dolly out from behind the divider, loaded with two grocery bags filled to the brim with what appeared to be all kinds of stuff. The items I could see sitting right on top were a loaf of seed bread and a large package of chicken.
The client who had preceded me returned to say that her car wouldn’t start and to ask if anyone had jumper cables. I couldn’t remember whether we had any, so I texted my wife, who was waiting in the car. No, we don’t, she informed me. Meanwhile, my predecessor helped me wedge the two huge bags of grapefruit in between the grocery bags on the dolly. I dragged it back down the path, my wife loaded the food into the car, and I dragged the empty dolly back to the office.
I thanked the staff once again, and they informed me that I am eligible for food once per month. I am welcome to come back in July, they said. I appreciate it, I told them, but I truly hope that I don’t see you fine folks again next month.
But I know that we probably will. And I can only thank the Lord that there are such generous people and organizations to help out the poor in our local community.
We were lucky today, one of the workers at Mother Hubbard’s informed me. Today they had eggs. Most of the time, they don’t. And indeed, when we unpacked the bags onto the kitchen table, there among the incredible variety and quantity of food was a half-dozen eggs. Along with a 2½ pound package of boneless chicken that still had a supermarket’s $8.75 price label stuck to it. There was a package of four large parmesan hoagie rolls and a baggie of loose muffins and pastries. There were two cans of tuna, two cans of green beans, a can of kernel corn, a can of fruit cocktail, a large can of spaghetti sauce, a tiny can of tomato paste, a Ziploc baggie full of rice and another of dry beans, a jar of peanut butter, a squeeze bottle of strawberry jam, a bag of pasta, a whole bunch of Ramen noodles and instant soup cups, a can of pork ‘n beans, a small package of roast beef and a box of breakfast cereal (peanut butter and chocolate flavored, of all things). There were also numerous snack items, such as a little package of pretzel sticks with soft cheese for dipping, a granola bar and, my wife’s favorite, a large box of Cheez-Its. And that’s just the stuff that I can remember without conducting an inventory.
With my wife and Pastor Mom being meat-eaters who aren’t much for veggies, and with me being a vegan, I feel confident that we will make the most of the food we received. I was particularly thrilled to discover that the loaf of seed bread is vegan.
I mentioned to my wife that we can expect to have an interesting time planning meals to make the most of the food items we were given. She agreed, pointing out that whatever we don’t use we will surely pay forward to help feed those who come to the door of the parsonage hungry and hoping for a meal.