Thursday, June 30, 2011

Ruth Meiers Hospitality House

While we were in Bismarck, we volunteered at the Ruth Meiers Hospitality House, which serves the homeless and those at risk of becoming homeless. 

We toured the offices and outreach facility with Julie Huwe, and then helped Dale Romans prepare and serve supper to the residents of the men’s shelter.  The menu was chicken quarters topped with pasta sauce and cheese, bread stuffing, creamed corn, and iced tea.  It was easy to prepare, leaving us time to chat with some of the residents before dinner.  The crowd was small, most watching TV and talking with each other as they enjoyed their dinners.  We served about 15 of the 21 current residents and put a few meals into the refrigerator for late-comers. 

Dale Romans
Ruth Meiers Hospitality House is a homeless shelter.  It has two emergency facilities, one a men’s shelter and one a women and children’s shelter.  Last year, all the beds were full for 276 of the 365 nights, and they housed 131 different men, women and children at different times.  Hospitality House also has several transitional housing facilities for single men and women, with various entry and resident criteria, but all with on-site support staff.  Residents are expected to progress toward permanent housing and to work towards gaining employment and/or income.  Staff, including case managers, job service representatives, and an addiction/mental health counselor, help residents address their needs. 

But Ruth Meiers Hospitality House is much more than just a shelter. 
  • It is the “24/7 Single Point of Entry” to services for those that are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless in the Bismarck area.  Here, clients in need can come to one place for all services rather than being referred to a number of different agencies. 
  • It’s a place to obtain food.  They house a food pantry, open 5 days/week.  Like many other food pantries, it often suffers from a lack of some of the products they want to distribute.  The food pantry has a refrigerator for storing perishables (when we visited, it contained only eggs, donated by a local farmer) and a freezer which held frozen meat, mostly donated by Walmart and other local supermarkets.  They also sometimes receive meat from Sportsmen Against Hunger.  Other protein sources and fast meals were in very short supply – see the empty shelves in this photo.  Clients may use the food pantry once/month, and get about 20 lbs of food.  There is also a “bread shelf” in the lobby, where anyone can come and pick up three packages of bread and rolls, collected daily from local bakeries and supermarkets by volunteers. 
  • Julie Huwe showing us the food pantry at the
    Ruth Meiers Hospitality House
  • The Stone Soup Kitchen, in existence since 1994, provides a free noon meal to homeless and low-income individuals in the community on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday.  The meals are prepared and served by volunteers, and they have a waiting list for people who want to help!
This little shelter, run by compassionate people and home to so many other services, seemed to us uniquely fitted to meeting the needs of homeless and struggling people in Bismarck.  We’re glad to have helped out in 1 small way.

What Does 7.8% Mean in North Dakota?

Feeding America's Map the Meal Gap
See that largest light area on Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap?  That would be the state of North Dakota, which Feeding America estimates as having the lowest food insecurity rate in the nation – 7.8%.  This is a very low rate!  The next lowest is New Hampshire, with a rate of 10.0%, and the national average is 16.6%. 

What does a state look like that has the lowest food insecurity rate?  We went to North Dakota to find out.  We expected to find little need for food assistance.  Instead we found innovative state-wide programs facing special challenges in feeding hungry North Dakotans.

Melissa Sobolik,
Great Plains Food Bank
We began in Fargo, ND, where we interviewed Melissa Sobolik, Director of Member and Client Services at Great Plains Food Bank, the food bank that supplies all of North Dakota and one county of Minnesota with much of its emergency food, including TEFAP commodities.  Then we traveled to Bismarck, the state capital, and talked with Arlene Dura, Director of Food Assistance Programs (including SNAP) for the North Dakota Department of Human Services

We certainly heard about the challenges of reaching the population of North Dakota with services: North Dakota is largely rural, people here take great pride in their self-reliance, and currently, flooding is at disastrous levels.

The population of North Dakota is 672,591.  Only 2 states have fewer residents (Vermont and Wyoming).  About 39% of North Dakotans live in the 4 biggest cities, Fargo, Bismarck, Grand Forks, and Minot, but 2 whole counties have less than 800 residents each, and another 3 have populations between 800 and 2000.  Some people need to drive 60 miles just to get to the nearest grocery store or social service office.  The average distance clients drive to a food pantry is 48 miles. 

What techniques are being used to reach this far-flung populace?
Arlene Dura, North Dakota
Department of Human Services
Arlene told us that there are county social services offices in 51 of the 53 counties (those two very sparsely populated counties are combined with a neighbor), and at least 7 counties staff satellite offices to better reach those in need.  Several of these satellites are on the state’s 3 Indian reservations. 

The county offices make the application process as efficient as possible.  Each eligibility worker handles applications for all federal programs – SNAP, Medicaid, TANF, Child Care Assistance, Basic Care, and LIHEAP fuel assistance.  In August, North Dakota added an on-line application process, which saves a client at least one trip to the county office.  So far, they’ve received more than 2400 applications via computer.  Applications are automatically routed to the correct county office, and someone in that office must follow up within one day.  For expedited service (extreme need), applicants will have their benefits within 3 days, instead of the federally mandated 7 days.  In addition, in cases of hardship (such as disability or lack of transportation), social service workers can conduct a phone interview instead of a face-to-face interview. 

The Great Plains Food Bank is also specialized to supply programs and services to low-density rural areas.   For example, they will deliver to all pantries, not requiring any to come to their warehouse to pick up food.  In 16 areas without adequate food pantries, they run mobile food pantries.  They prepare 40-lb boxes of food, load about 800 boxes onto a semi, and go to a pre-arranged and advertised site.  Clients line up in their vehicles, and workers try to provide one box of food for each person in the household.  Melissa told us about one mobile food pantry where 500 cars were in line when the truck arrived, and 1400 people showed up.  They had to ration the food that day, and next quarter, they may send 2 semis out to that location.  At least 10 communities are on the waiting list for these mobile pantries.

The SNAP participation rate in North Dakota in 2008 was 67%.  How can more people actually receive the benefits to which they are entitled?  

Melissa told us about the Great Plains Food Bank’s new outreach efforts.  In partnership with the state, the food bank employs 3 SNAP outreach workers, who have visited every one of their 278 partner agencies to explain SNAP to those coming for service. These agencies include food pantries, senior programs, meal programs, and others. 

The outreach workers found that there are many barriers to participation in SNAP.  One of the main barriers is “Prairie Pride;” many North Dakotans choose not to admit that they are food insecure, preferring to just “make do.”   Other barriers are transportation, the distance to the social services office, and misconceptions about the programs (for example, that you can’t own a car, can’t have any assets, need to be fingerprinted, or shouldn’t take food assistance because someone else might need it more).  It often takes several low-key visits to establish a relationship with a potential client, explain the SNAP program, dispel these misconceptions, and pre-screen clients for eligibility.  Outreach workers then do whatever’s necessary to help clients apply, including sometimes visiting their homes, helping to determine what paperwork will be needed, and delivering paperwork to the social services office. 
North Dakota State Capitol in Bismarck, ND

This year, North Dakota is experiencing an additional huge challenge – flooding, which is causing widespread damage in 3 major cities on 3 different rivers.  Minot had just been declared a federal disaster area and has been authorized for individual assistance to those affected.  

The response from the Department of Social Services was swift.  Plans were in place ahead of time so that the day after the official disaster declarations were made, the plans could be submitted to the regional USDA office.  The state used disaster overlay maps to identify all SNAP recipients affected by the flooding, and will give them an automatic replacement of their June SNAP grant, supplemented to the maximum amount allowed for their household size.  They are also ready to offer emergency SNAP benefits to anyone who lost their job because of the flooding, with a shorter application process, and taking into account the extra costs such as emergency housing, and granting an immediate interview. 

The Great Plains Food Bank is likewise implementing their disaster response plans, sending in extra food, as well as staffing an outreach office to help affected residents apply for SNAP benefits.  They’re working very closely with the social services office to coordinate these plans.

So, after our visit to North Dakota, what do we think accounts for the low reported rates of food insecurity there?

First, although North Dakotans are not rich (their 2008-9 level of poverty and median income place them close to the national average), their unemployment rate is by far the lowest in the nation at 3.2%.  Not only does this mean that more North Dakotans have regular income, but also that fewer are in the crisis adjustment stages of coping with job loss and learning to live on a lower budget.

Second, rates of food insecurity are partially determined by a US Census Bureau survey that asks questions about skipping meals, having too little money to afford balanced meals, and other things indicating that a household is at risk of hunger.  Answers to these questions might be slightly biased on the low side due to North Dakotans’ traditional reluctance to admit hardship.  They also are likely lower due to the fact that North Dakotans are blessed with an emergency food system that is highly tuned to meet their particular needs. 

(Acknowledgment:  Special thanks to Julia Brown at Feeding America, who helped us make sense of food insecurity measurement methods and what they mean.)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Ruby’s Pantry – Another Way to Stretch Your Food Dollar

Packing Rolls for Distribution
at Ruby's Pantry
Where can you get about $75-100 of groceries for a donation of $15?  We found one way when we volunteered for a day with Ruby’s Pantry in Cloquet, MN. 

Ruby’s Pantry is one outreach program of a 501(c)(3) evangelical Christian organization called Home and Away Ministries, Inc.   Ruby’s Pantry states its mission like this:  "To procure and distribute corporate surplus food and goods to help fight poverty, hunger and disease in rural communities in the United States for those with low resources and in crisis through churches, food shelves and other local civic organizations." 

All food distributed by Ruby’s Pantry has been donated to the central warehouse in North Branch, MN.  From there it goes out to rural areas and small communities, mostly in northeastern Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin, where 29 local churches or church groups hold Ruby’s Pantry distribution events, typically once a month.

We arrived at the Armory in Cloquet on the 4th Wednesday of June at 8:30 AM in a rainstorm with heavy winds.  About 30 people were already crowded into the lobby waiting for the doors to open at 10:30.  So that additional people wouldn’t have to wait outside in the rain, volunteers opened the doors as soon as there were chairs set up for them, began registration early, and announced to those who registered that distribution would start at 10:30 instead of 11:00.  There are no qualifications for receiving food at Ruby’s Pantry, but each person is asked to register by name, make a donation of $15, and receive a number indicating their place in line to receive food.

Chris Egelkraut & Richard Moeding
Meanwhile, about 50 volunteers were busy preparing all the food for distribution.  We signed in, got volunteer name tags, and joined in.  Carolyn helped transfer small cubes of frozen scrambled eggs into gallon baggies.  Betsy helped create bags of 15 frozen cheese rolls each.  When those jobs were done, we helped load the two long lines of tables with all the food to be given out that day. 

All the portions and setup were kept smoothly running by a host church representative, Pastor Rex Clyde, as well as two people from Ruby’s Pantry – operations manager Chris Egelkraut and truck driver Richard Moeding. 
The food distributed differs each time, depending on what Ruby's Pantry has received in donations.  Here’s what each person received the day we were there:
  • 1 package of frozen barbecued beef ribs
  • 2 packages of frozen chicken breast meat
  • 1 bag of stuffing (larger than the supermarket size)
  • 1 restaurant-sized can of vegetables such as peas, baked beans, beans, red kidney beans
  • 1 bag of frozen scrambled eggs
  • 2 loaves of cranberry walnut bread
  • 1 bag of 15 frozen cheese rolls 
  • 3 cases of yogurt, each containing 12 Yoplait Splitz
  • 6 cellophane tubes of Thin Mint Girl Scout cookies, equivalent to 3 boxes of cookies 
  • 32 ounces of whipping cream 
  • 6 pints of sweet tea
  • Choice of 1 miscellaneous item (e.g., a grab bag of 10 small items, or 1 large item such as a large bottle of cooking oil)
Registering (top) and Setting Up (bottom)
CIP Helpers
Volunteers who had worked for a few hours setting everything up went through the line first, followed by all the customers in numerical order.  Each person pushed a shopping cart (lent for the day by a local grocery store) down one side or the other of the distribution area.  Volunteers handed out each item, and the customers placed them into their own tubs or bags in the shopping carts.  At the end they were helped out to their vehicles by nine inmates from the CIP program, Minnesota’s Challenge Incarceration Program, which includes a community service component.  Most customers seemed very pleased by the food they received. 

About 700 people have registered for the Cloquet Ruby’s Pantry so far this year.  As is about typical, 202 people received food the day we were there, and about 8 new customers were turned away at the end of the morning when there were no more shares available. 

One thing that impressed us about Ruby’s Pantry is the large reliance on good-hearted volunteers and donations.  All the food is donated, all the on-site labor is done by volunteers and the CIP inmates, the Armory rental fee is waived for charitable organizations, and local stores donate bags and lend shopping carts.  Some of the donation dollars go back to Ruby’s Pantry to help pay for transportation, and the remainder stays with the local sponsoring organization, which uses it for other charitable purposes.
Volunteers serving at Ruby's Pantry
We also appreciated that this program requires no qualifications to participate other than the expected donation.  That factor appeared to us to foster a sense of dignity among all participants.  There was also an eagerness to volunteer (almost all volunteers were also customers), and we heard from several volunteers that they were giving the food they got to a daughter or grandchild who was in tough circumstances. 

All in all, Ruby’s Pantry had the feel of a community coming together to provide affordable food for everyone in need. 

WIC Works

In fiscal year 2010, the USDA spent approximately $94.8B on congressionally mandated food and nutrition assistance programs.  The bulk (72%) went to SNAP (food stamps), followed by School Lunch (11%).  The WIC program accounted for approximately 7% of the expenditures. WIC served 9.2 million people per month in 2010.

What is WIC? WIC is the common name for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.  Its mission is “To safeguard the health of low-income women, infants, and children up to age 5 who are at nutrition risk by providing nutritious foods to supplement diets, information on healthy eating, and referrals to health care.” 

But wait.  Isn’t this what SNAP is for?  Not exactly.  Compared to SNAP:
  • WIC serves a much more tightly-defined population – just low-income, nutritionally at risk:
    - Pregnant women
    - Breastfeeding women (up to infant’s 1st birthday) 
    - Nonbreastfeeding postpartum women (up to 6 months after the birth of an infant or after pregnancy ends)
    - Infants (up to 1st birthday). WIC serves 45-50 % of all infants born in the United States. 
    - Children up to their 5th birthday.
  • WIC is NOT an entitlement program.  States receive a specific amount of money and can only enroll participants until their funding runs out.
  • All WIC services are tailored to the client’s health and nutritional status.  WIC requires nutrition education, health monitoring, and regular appointments with WIC nurses at specific sites. 
  • WIC vouchers supplement the client’s diet and may only be used for specific amounts of WIC-authorized foods. 
These last two features of WIC are the reason community nutritionist David Holben at the University of Ohio said that he prefers the WIC model for supplemental food programs.  

Ever since meeting Professor Holben, we’ve looked forward to visiting and learning about WIC from those who administer the program at the local level.  We got our chance in Duluth, MN, where we met with Public Health Nurse Supervisor Luzette Samargia. 

Luzette has been part of the WIC program since about 1978 when it was first introduced in this part of Minnesota.  As part of her duties, Luzette now manages the County WIC program for the Department of Public Health and Human Services in St. Louis County, Minnesota’s largest county, which stretches from Duluth and Lake Superior in the south, through the Iron Range (Hibbing and Virginia), to the Canadian border in the north.

Luzette manages about 27 public health nurses and 3 dieticians, who as part of their jobs are highly trained to provide WIC health checks, breastfeeding encouragement, nutrition counseling for mothers and their young children, and appropriate WIC food vouchers.  They do extensive outreach in community forums, hospitals, and newspapers to ensure that WIC reaches as many of those eligible as possible.  Currently, about 4500 women, infants, and children receive WIC services in St. Louis County.  And when a woman or child is no longer eligible for WIC, they ensure that any continuing needs are met  by following up with regular home visits or by referring the client to other services. 

When a pregnant woman or mother of young children wants WIC services, she typically calls the public health office and is screened for eligibility.  The Minnesota Department of Health also has a simple on-line tool for assessing eligibility.  Then she comes in to one of 4 WIC locations around the county.  There she and her infants or young children meet with a public health nurse, who does the routine health checks, including height, weight, and routine blood work for children over age 6 months.  The nurse assesses the family’s nutritional risks and needs and provides tailored  nutrition counseling, using a variety of materials developed specifically for use by WIC mothers.   Then the mother receives vouchers for WIC foods and learns about the process for using them.  The WIC mother signs the vouchers once when she receives them. 
One section of Minnesota's WIC Shopping Guide
She takes the WIC Shopping Guide with her to the store.  This guide helps her to find the WIC-approved items that can be purchased with the voucher.  For example, pictured here is the section on fresh vegetables.

At the register, she separates the WIC foods from other items she may be purchasing with SNAP benefits or with her own cash.  The cashier checks the WIC items against the voucher, asks the woman to sign the voucher again, and keeps it for processing by the store.  This somewhat complex process will be simplified within a few years, as the USDA is mandating that all states move to the use of electronic benefits cards for WIC by 2020.

Does WIC work?  Luzette felt strongly that her WIC program has positive effects on those it serves.  National studies are somewhat mixed (see The WIC Program: Background, Trends, and Economic Issues, 2009 Edition).  But studies generally agree that WIC has positive impacts on healthy infants, such as mean birthweights, which also leads to savings in Medicaid costs. 

WIC has generally not been found to significantly change food patterns of participants or to reduce the incidence of obesity.  Thus, WIC programs are increasing their focus on nutrition education.  And in 2009 the WIC nutrition advice and foods available with WIC vouchers were completely updated in accordance with current USDA guidelines.  For example, WIC vouchers may now be used for fresh fruits and vegetables, more whole-grain products are required, and only milk with 2 percent or lower fat content is authorized for women and children age 2 and older.

Another reported issue with WIC is that WIC mothers may be less likely than non-WIC mothers to breastfeed their babies.   It’s not clear whether this difference is due to a sampling bias (WIC mothers may differ from non-WIC mothers in other ways related to the choice of whether to breastfeed) or whether the WIC program actually causes more mothers to choose bottle feeding due to factors such as WIC subsidies for infant formula. 

But we are glad to see that locally, regionally, and nationally, WIC programs are stepping up efforts to increase breastfeeding.  In St. Louis County, certified lactation specialists are available in each office and more public health nurses are becoming certified.  All WIC mothers are given advice about appropriately advancing their infant’s diet.  The new Minnesota WIC Shopping Guide offers simple reasons for breastfeeding and strong encouragement, including a reference to La Leche League.  Women who are fully breastfeeding  receive larger portions of WIC foods and also receive vouchers for canned tuna and salmon.  And at the federal level, when Congress reauthorized WIC as part of the Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act of 2010, the bill included additional incentives for states to more strongly encourage breastfeeding. 

In short, we believe that WIC is evolving to be a very good model for providing need-based and outcome-based, supplemental nutritional assistance.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Growing Power, an Inspiring Farm in Milwaukee, WI

Will Allen
Former pro basketball player Will Allen has a vision – helping to provide equal access to healthy, high-quality, safe and affordable food for people in all communities.  He’s providing a model to revise our whole food system. 

In today’s big industrial food system, many of our vegetables are grown on a few hundred square miles of farmland in California, picked before it’s ripe, shipped for days using precious fossil fuel, then stored in warehouses and sent to supermarkets, where the vegetables can sit for many more days.  This process robs vegetables of nutrients and taste. 

Growing Power Community Food Center, Milwaukee, WI
By contrast, Will Allen envisions a system where food is grown locally, even in the winter, harvested at its peak, used within 1-2 days of being harvested, and available at a fair price for everyone, even those living in grocery store deserts in the inner city.  How does he hope to bring that vision to fruition?  To find out, we visited and spent a day volunteering at the Growing Power Community Food Center, the urban farm started by Will Allen on two acres in one of the poorer neighborhoods of Milwaukee. 

We were very impressed by just how cleverly the Community Food Center grows large amounts of produce in very little space.  In 6 greenhouses and 10 “hoop houses” (metal hoops with polyethylene stretched over them), this farm grows sprouts (we tasted 4” high pea sprouts) and baby greens in every available spot.  Flats of soil are “overseeded” and when the mass of leaves reaches 4-6” high, in 12-14 days, workers “shave” them, wash the harvested greens twice, spin them, and package them.   Other vegetables we saw in flats included tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, peppers, kale, cabbage, broccoli, and various herbs, some of which were destined for sale or for use in other garden projects around the city.
Jacqueline explains aquaponics

Also in the greenhouses are several aquaponics systems.  Tilapia and yellow perch grow in 80 foot-long fish runs on the lowest level.  The water is pumped up into two tiers of slightly tilted gravel beds.  As the water flows through these upper beds, the nitrites from the fish waste are converted to nitrates by bacteria on the rocks, and then plants use the nitrates as fertilizer.  Some levels contain pots of various food plants sitting in the gravel beds, and other levels contain watercress growing directly in the gravel.  The purified water flows back into the fish runs, thus making a closed loop system.  The fish are fed three times/day and reach marketable size in 9-15 months (depending on the type of fish).  Fish are sold live to restaurants and the public.  And the tomatoes we helped pot and place on the top tier will provide tomatoes for area residents well into the winter.

Kids learning how worms make soil
Growing Power creates its own rich soil.  First, compost is created by mixing farm plant waste, manure, food scraps from grocery stores and food preparers, wood chips from the city, and beer mash from a local brewery, and allowing it to mature for about a year.  Second, the compost is put in bins with red wriggler worms for 4 months.  And finally, the worm castings are harvested and mixed with coconut husk fibers to improve the soil’s wicking properties. 

The compost (before the worms get it) gets so hot (up to 180 degrees) that Growing Power piles it along the outside of the hoop houses in the winter to heat them.  This allows them to grow produce year-round with little if any supplemental heat. 

The Growing Power Community Food Center also raises animals.  There are beehives for pollination, honey, and teaching.  There are turkeys, ducks and chickens for eggs, and goats to teach milking and cheese making. 

Some of Growing Power's beehives
Everything on the farm is used and reused.  In addition to composting all organic waste, they use some of the compost to make compost tea for fertilizing their plants.  They use sunlight for growing, and they also have solar electric and solar hot water panels to provide some of their energy needs.  They collect rainwater for the fish runs and watering.  They use pots and flats until they fall apart, and even the slugs we cleaned out of the slug traps were fed to the chickens. 

The produce that the farm grows is supplied to local residents in many ways – sold in their small store individually or through “market baskets” that contain enough produce for a family of 4 for a week, sold on contracts to local schools and restaurants, and donated to the local food bank. 

The Community Food Center also provides training and a wide variety of jobs for people in the area.  Interns come from all over the US to work for the summer.  School children and adults learn about growing food and Growing Power methods through hands-on experiences and weekend workshops.

Growing Power is much more than the Community Food Center farm and national headquarters that we saw in Milwaukee.  There are many other sites that are part of, or supported by, Growing Power, including several other urban sites in the Chicago area and several other growing spaces from small demonstration gardens to more spacious farm plots.

Altogether, Growing Power reported that in 2010 they grew enough food to feed 12,000 people, including more than $500,000 worth of crops and 100,000 fish.  They hosted over 15,000 visitors and 3,500 volunteers, and they trained 1000 beginning farmers and over 1000 youths.

Will Allen and Growing Power challenge our current assumptions about how and where to grow the food we eat.  We found the approach to be ecologically responsible, surprisingly effective for northern climates, and potentially a route to making more nutritious food available to underserved areas.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Salvation Army -- Mobile Outreach to Hungry and Homeless

Claudia Rowland,
Divisional Social Services Director
Most Americans know The Salvation Army through those famous red kettles into which bell ringers encourage us to place our money at Christmastime.  A tremendous amount of good flows from these and other funds – in 2008 over 30 million Americans received help from The Salvation Army.

But The Salvation Army is not fundamentally a social service organization – it is a worldwide evangelical Christian denomination, founded about 1865 in London and “dedicated to bringing people into a meaningful relationship with God through Christ.”  For soldiers in The Salvation Army, “Christianity is synonymous with service.” 

To learn more, specifically about the role The Salvation Army plays in feeding hungry Americans, we visited the Chicago Metropolitan Division.  Claudia Rowland, Divisional Social Services Director, gave us an overview.  In addition to disaster services and volunteer programs, most services of The Salvation Army are offered through Corps Community Centers.  In the Chicago area 30 centers provide traditional church ministries integrated with a very large number of direct social services.  Among the services at each center is a food pantry that distributes food to anyone in need.  Food comes through direct donations, FEMA, and the Greater Chicago Food Depository.  The Salvation Army also runs the Golden Diners Service that feeds over 4,000 seniors in the western suburbs of Chicago.

The Salvation Army houses about 1,000 people a day in its 5 Chicago-area residences, people in need of a place to stay and more.  In spite of this, and efforts by the City of Chicago and other social service agencies, hunger, homelessness, and addiction remain in wide-spread pockets throughout Chicago.  According to Ms. Rowland, The Salvation Army decided that rather than constructing another building, their best chance to help these individuals was to reach out to them where they were already congregating.  
Captain Nancy Powers and Christine B. Henry
Thus, in 2008, Captain Nancy Powers, Director of the Chicago Harbor Light Center, began the Mobile Outreach program.  Christine B. Henry, now Director of Homeless Services, was its first case worker. 

Mobile Outreach is similar to Mobile Feeding, a program of The Salvation Army that delivers hot meals to people at about 25 locations a day throughout Chicago.  But Mobile Outreach is more – rather than quickly moving from site to site, it remains for up to 2 hours at each of 5 sites, 5 days a week.  Sites are chosen to be close to those in need, but are sometimes adjusted based on safety concerns relayed by town officials or police.

In addition to providing hot food and a chance for those served to know that they are not forgotten, Mobile Outreach includes full case management for anyone who wants it.  The Mobile Outreach truck incudes a small private office area for case workers to meet with individuals who would like further services.  Anyone who is ready to move to residential or treatment programs can be transported there immediately in the “chaser” van.

Who are the people served by Mobile Outreach?  Captain Powers shared some general statistics and trends with us.  Although the largest percentage (about 45%) are between the ages of 31 and 50, more teens and seniors are now coming for services.  The teens may have been put out of their homes due to drug use or misbehavior, and the seniors may be unable to pay for food as well as rent and medications.  About 61% are single men, 17% women with child(ren), 16% single women, and the remainder men or couples with child(ren).  About 89% are African American.  Nearly ¾ have no income.  About 24% are homeless, 35% are living in emergency housing, and 21% are living with relatives or friends.   Many are ex-offenders, and many suffer from drug and/or alcohol abuse, mental illness, physical disability, and domestic violence. 
Warren Peeler and Trina Poole

We volunteered for a day with Mobile Outreach.  In the morning, driver BJ, food server Warren Peeler, and case worker Trina Poole made sure the truck (affectionately named “Ladle”) had all the bowls, cups, napkins, and other supplies it needed. Then they loaded the food:
  • 5 large canisters of spicy vegetable soup that had been freshly prepared in the Harbor Light kitchen that morning
  • 3 large cold drink dispensers (2 with fruit drink, 1 with water)
  • 2 boxes of sliced bread of various types
  • 1 box of apples
Our tour of duty lasted all day, with breaks between stops, and covered about 24 miles.  We helped serve juice and bread, handed out apples to those who could eat them, and talked with many of the people who came for food.  Here are a few things that impressed us:
  • Everyone seemed to appreciate the soup and to like how hearty and flavorful it was (even if they might have preferred chili-mac).
  • We served a huge range of people, approximating the statistics Captain Powers had shared with us.
  • Warren, who himself is a graduate of Harbor Light’s addiction recovery program, was masterful at keeping to the rules of safe food handling, recognizing and enthusiastically welcoming the people we served, and watching out for the orderliness of the operation and safety of the staff and clients.
  • Trina, who has her master’s degree in social work and prior experience working with people who are homeless, engaged folks in easy conversation, provided information about The Salvation Army’s services, as well as services from other agencies, and after private consultation, started one young man on the road to permanent housing and mental health services.

We completed our day extremely grateful that these wonderful people of The Salvation Army are ministering to the very poor with such compassion and such ready connection with the services they may need.  Claudia Rowland, Nancy Powers, and Christine Henry all agreed that the biggest challenge facing The Salvation Army going forward is funding.  In this economy, it is extremely difficult to come up with the money to continue valuable services such as those we saw in Chicago. 

We know that we’ll be contributing generously to those red kettles and more.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Wheeler Mission Ministries -- Help for People without Homes

How many people are homeless in the US?  According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development:
  • “On a single night in January 2009, there were an estimated 643,067 sheltered and unsheltered homeless people nationwide.”  (page i)
  • “Nearly 1.56 million people used an emergency shelter or a transitional housing program during the 12-month period (October 1, 2008 through September 30, 2009).” (page iii)
People who are homeless represent about 5% of those seeking emergency food assistance in the US (Hunger in America 2010, page 66), but they face huge challenges when it comes to securing reliable, adequate, and healthy food for themselves and their families. 

Facing Hunger in America’s summer 2011 trip began in Indianapolis, IN, where the most recent single-night count of people who are homeless found over 1500 individuals.  To better understand services for these individuals, we visited Wheeler Mission Ministries

Bethany Alvis
Founded in 1893, Wheeler Mission Ministries has a long and fascinating history.  It is one of the 250+ Gospel Rescue Missions in the US and Canada, many of which also were founded over 100 years ago.  Today, Wheeler Mission Ministries is a thoroughly modern social service agency focused on providing “Christ-centered programs and services for the homeless and those in need.”

Wheeler Mission Ministries is the largest organization of its kind in Indiana, with 120 employees and an annual budget of $6.5 million; 76% of the funding comes from individual donors and the remainder from foundations and grants.  Wheeler receives no federal funding.  Bethany Alvis, Community Outreach and Volunteer Coordinator for Wheeler Mission, described the various ministries -- men’s and women’s emergency services, residential programs, addiction recovery, and jobs programs, housed in Wheeler Mission’s eight separate centers in Indianapolis.  
Wheeler Mission Ministries'
Center for Women and Children

We visited and volunteered at the Center for Women and Children, where Shawnna Rice, volunteer coordinator and case worker, gave us a tour of the beautiful facility.  This 10-story former hotel had been purchased by Wheeler Mission Ministries in 1991, refurbished first as a community center, and recently as the home for most of the women’s programs.  Five floors are used for housing for different programs, and the other floors contain a library, classrooms, a computer room, a job search center, lounge areas, showers, laundry, and offices.  A rear wing contains the kitchen and dining area, with a full-sized gym above.  A side wing houses mothers and their children, where each family unit has a bedroom, small sitting area and bathroom.  The basement has a medical clinic as well as the child care center which has direct access to the playground. 

Here, women who are homeless stay on a short-term emergency basis for up to 30 days, or longer if they are taking part in a program, such as Fresh Start or the Working Guest Program, to help them become independent and to acquire job and life skills they may need. Also, women seeking recovery from addictions begin the Higher Ground Addiction Recovery Program here before transferring to the long-term residence dedicated to that program.  Children who live here either attend the on-site pre-school and daycare center or ride a school bus to the school they attended before their family became homeless.
Shawnna Rice

At the Center for Women and Children, we were impressed by the huge number of carefully tuned services nested within each of the programs, everything from health clinics and legal aid to child care and computer access.  There are classes on conflict resolution, parenting, budgeting, physical fitness, nutrition, computer skills, GED preparation, business writing, and preparing for the workplace.  Counseling helps with goal setting and emotional issues. 

We don’t have detailed statistics, but to us it appeared that Wheeler Mission’s success rate is high.  One figure we heard is that those who complete the addiction recovery program are four times less likely to return to substance abuse than the rate reported by other programs.  In talking with guests and residents, we heard many stories of people successfully overcoming homelessness or other serious life difficulties.  We were impressed by these hallmarks of the Wheeler Mission approach:
  • It is Christ-centered.  All program participants are required to participate in Bible study and to attend a church of their choice.  The addiction recovery programs are based on spiritual renewal.
  • It’s not just about shelter and food.  The focus is on long-term, phased programs that are tailored to the needs and strengths of individual men and women.  Wheeler Mission follows its people after they complete the programs, and many graduates are now interns, mentors, and employees.
  • Programs for men and women differ, based on what Wheeler Mission has learned works best for each.  For example, women’s programs tend to be smaller, focused more on emotional, relationship, and self-esteem issues.
  • Rather than providing services on the street to people who are homeless, the focus is on providing services in the residential environment, where other services are more readily available and where opportunities to return to self-sufficiency are greater.
Pamela Ealy & Patricia Stafford
Our volunteering consisted of helping in the kitchen, where kitchen assistant Pamela Ealy and intern Patricia Stafford put us to work.  Pamela and Patricia are both graduates of the Higher Ground program.  Pamela also completed job training at Second Helpings, a food rescue organization that also runs a culinary school.  Patricia is hoping to enter that program in a few weeks.
Kim Clanton, head of food service for the Center, told us that 90% of the meals are homemade.  They use donated food, although she does need to buy some things from her small budget.  Much of the produce and some prepared food comes from Second Helpings.

Serving dinner with fellow volunteers
Carol and Elizabeth
Our kitchen jobs included preparing two turkeys for roasting the next day, chopping vegetables for a salad bar for Saturday lunch, and assembling a punch-bowl cake.  At dinner, we helped serve barbequed chicken breast, macaroni and cheese, green beans, and cake to about 60 people, children first.  Most were residents, but a few were people who came in from the street.  Portions were ample, and many people returned for seconds or thirds.  Dining room cleanup and dish washing was handled by residents whose turn it was to perform this chore.

We wondered what Wheeler Mission Ministries would recommend that others (like you and I) should do to help those who are homeless.  Here’s some of what Bethany said:
  • Acknowledge them – each is a human being, so make eye contact and say hello.  If the situation is safe, engage in conversation.
  • Don’t give money – instead, encourage them to seek assistance at a local shelter or give tangible resources like socks, granola bars, fresh water, bus tickets, or gift certificates to fast-food restaurants.
  • Become an advocate – support local programs designed to assist people who are homeless.
  • Pray for them.