Friday, October 3, 2008

For Those on the Soup Line, No Rescue Plans

For Those on the Soup Line, No Rescue Plans

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By the time the doors open to the soup kitchen at St. Benedict the Moor Neighborhood Center, the line is already snaking down St. Ann’s Avenue.

Old people sit on crates, children shuffle impatiently and adults avert their gaze. This happens every day of the year in Mott Haven, no matter the weather. That is because for too many years to count, hunger and want have been a constant in their lives.

The people who run this Bronx soup kitchen and an adjoining food pantry do not need economic analyses to tell them things are rough. The growing line and increased demand for food packages and hot meals — sometimes from people who thought they were middle class — is a sure-fire indicator.

And while politicians debate a $700 billion bailout for Wall Street, they have long lived with the fact that there is no emergency rescue plan for East 139th Street.

Anthony Jordan, the center’s executive director, said that while Congress tried – and failed - to push the bailout bill in a matter of days, it took about a year to get a farm bill passed that helps food pantries like his meet increased demand. On Wednesday, he is reopening his food pantry, which no longer gives people a sack like a handout, but allows them to browse and pick from shelves stocked with pasta, cereal and baby food. It’s a matter of dignity, he said.

“We want to be open every day, but my fear is with the economy the way it is, we’ll run out of food in a few days and just be open once a week,” Mr. Jordan said. “There is no bailout for us. There hasn’t been one for years. The closest thing to a bailout for us is to do more with less.”

This bleak little strip lies eight and a half miles from Wall Street. Emotionally, it is a parallel universe invisible to those titans of finance for whom fat bonuses used to mean bigger vacation homes, fancier toys and ever more exotic vacations. On St. Ann’s Avenue, a small bowl of meat balls, greens and mashed potatoes and some free condoms are about the only things to salve the sting of bad times.

While people wait for the soup kitchen to open, several community-based health groups offer advice and help under small tents lined up on the street nearby. Tables are set up stacked with free condoms and brochures, as people are encouraged to take a free H.I.V.-AIDS test on the spot. Andres Gonzalez, a volunteer with the Hispanic AIDS Forum, says he has seen little change, for the better, anyway.

“It’s all just going down, he said. “Now they’re cutting money for H.I.V. prevention, even when there is one new infection every 10 minutes. When will that stop?” Even in his own life, he feels the pressure of health care costs, too.

“Look at prescription drugs,” he said. “They always want a co-pay at the drug store. Sometimes I don’t have the money for the co-pay and the drug store won’t give me my medicines.”

Next to his table, St. Ann’s Corner of Harm Reduction, a nonprofit community health group, distributes free hypodermic needles to heroin addicts and diabetics. People line up, many of them in their 50s (or, at least, looking like it), to get a small bag with needles, alcohol swabs and condoms.

Often, people stop by and ask for referrals to detox programs, soup kitchens and food pantries. Volunteers there said referrals for food had tripled since last year alone, to 150 a day. Many of them come from local shelters, of which there is an abundance in this South Bronx neighborhood.

Carlos Flores has been coming to this street ever since he and his family had to move in to a shelter a few blocks away. He lost his apartment when he lost his truck driving job — an insurance problem left him with no driver’s license for a while, which was enough to put him on the street.

Although he has been accepted into a program that covers some of his rent as he starts to work again, he cannot find a landlord who will rent him a place. “I’m still at the shelter,” he said as he waited in line with his 18-month-old son, Sean Carter. “We’re trying. We’re looking, but it’s hard, no lie. Now they took away our food stamps when I missed a meeting with a caseworker.”

Given how threadbare their existences had long been, the idea that Congress had to ease the plight of bankers as soon as possible struck many of these people as preposterous, if not insulting.

“Why should we save a bank?” said Frances Hernandez, who was hauling an empty shopping cart. “Some people don’t have cards to go to banks.”

Edwin Avent and Eddie Fernandez stood near the head of the soup kitchen line. Mr. Avent had just finished a job training program for office help. He had yet to find a job.

“What about the poor?” Mr. Avent said.

“He got to stop spending money on that war,” Mr. Fernandez said. “If they messed up that country, it’s on them, not us.”

“It’s just heartbreaking what’s going on,” Mr. Avent said. “Don’t get me wrong — this is a great country, but we should take care of ourselves first. God bless the child who takes care of his own. Would you tend to your neighbor’s child before your own? We’re spending millions on another country and we got people here who are hungry.”

Yet, even in this place of need, there are scenes of unexpected generosity. It comes not from the government, but from others who walk the same streets with tired feet and haggard faces.

Anthony Echevarria and his wife, Tracy Rosado, stopped at one of the tables asking when the food pantry would open. Mr. Echevarria is a barrel-chested man. He used to be a construction worker until he hurt his spine. His wife just gave birth to a son, Nicholas Anthony. The five-day-old infant lay asleep in a harness on his father’s chest.

“There are people dying in this neighborhood,” Mr. Echevarria said. “They could be giving $700 billion to drug programs, food pantries or housing.”

He asked if the food pantry would open. It would not, he was told, until Wednesday. His little family of three walked away, calmly. He toted a small bag of clothes his newborn child did not need. He gave it to a woman leaving a church down the street.

On this gloriously sunny day, where the noonday light revealed every wrinkled face, grimy shirt and busted shoe, a man who received nothing managed to give a little to someone who had even less. He did not call it a bailout. He called it his duty.

“God is a good God,” he said, stroking his son’s back. “A giving God.”

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