Saturday, August 22, 2009

In 1983 - A Community Call for Help

This is the first in a series of columns I wrote in early 1983, when the recession that devastated the country and nearly decimated Michigan was just beginning to wind down. I've never really understood the reasons for that recession, and even now there are a multitude of theories, but I didn't need to understand it in order to grasp what was happening to real people because of it.

These pieces are necessarily local, as I was a columnist for a chain of weeklies that covered the communities of Western Wayne County, outside of Detroit. Very little content has been changed, except where I felt the need to clarify. (Keep in mind that I was still a novice, so cut the writing some slack, okay? I present these now only as an example of how people dealt with that particular recession in a place that was hit harder than most. It is the same place that is being hit harder than most today.)

I'm posting the picture of me that appeared with my column then. Don't laugh.
January 12, 1983 -

Last week Mayor Pickering called together community leaders and organization heads to talk about the hunger problem in our community. At the outset of the meeting, Pickering jolted the group by telling them that, of the 84,000 people living in our city, roughly 25 percent of them were receiving some sort of public assistance.

But those figures, startling as they were, didn't begin to tell the whole story. As Pickering noted, these numbers don't reflect the number of people hiding out there. They are people out of work with no more unemployment money coming in, but with accumulated assets such as a house or a second car that keep them from qualifying for welfare benefits or even food stamps.

"These people don't want to be identified," Pickering said. "Their pride is all-important. Many, many of them have never had to live like this before."

Out of that meeting came an encouraging number of offers to help. Scout leaders will step up food collections, Skateland will host a skate night with all proceeds going to feed the hungry, the Lions Club will recommend a "can a man" from their membership and will loan their bus at any time.

The Goodfellows and the Jaycees will continue their good Christmas work. The Kiwanis, the VFW, and the Senior Citizens are all itching to get into the battle, and Councilwoman Nancy Neal wrote a check on the spot for $1000, representing one half of her council salary.

Tyrone White and Gerald Arbour were there to explain AAA's "Operation Foodbasket", an effort to collect food for the hungry in western Wayne County.

The outpouring of concern at that meeting was overwhelming, but it is only the beginning. There are still problems to be worked out--from identifying the hungry and the "new poor", to coordinating the programs so that everyone isn't doing the same thing, to spreading the message and getting enough food, money and volunteer help.

I've spoken in the last few days to numerous people involved in programs in their own communities, and I'm getting many different pictures:
In some communities they've been prepared--and have been doing--for a long time. In others, the impact of the unemployment situation in our county is just now hitting them. Some of them haven't even thought about programs until now.

AWARENESS. That's the key word now. There are people out there, in every community, in desperate need. There are no jobs and they're running out of money. People aren't making house payments and they can't pay their utility bills. They've reached the bottom of the barrel and there's nothing there. And they're convinced it must be their fault.

AWARENESS. Someone has to tell those people--the people with no jobs and no money--that it wasn't anything they did or didn't do. They are victims of rising inflation, of Reaganomics, of the decline and fall of the auto industry. They're not alone in this; eveyone is feeling the effects. There's nothing to be ashamed of.

AWARENESS. Everyone can help. Even those people who need it. The out-of-workers with nothing but time on their hands can volunteer to help fill food baskets--even if delivery is slated to his or her house. There is no "charity" when everyone is working together.

AWARENESS. For the next several weeks, I will devote this column space to spreading the word. We'll share information about community efforts and we'll take a deeper look at the hunger problem in our area. We'll look at how we're coping and how we're helping and we'll find out what the banks, stores, utilities companies, schools, churches and social services people are doing.

In this newspaper we've provided a box called "Hunger Hotline". It's a listing of community programs and contact people. The listings are far from complete but it's a start. If you have information to add to it, send it to me here or leave your name and number and I'll get in touch with you.

There is no shame in needing help. The shame comes in not giving it.

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