Soup kitchen feeds growing number of hungry people
CHARLOTTE, North Carolina – Well before the doors of the Urban Ministry Center open on Sunday mornings, there is a crowd of people, mostly men, milling around waiting for a meal the center provides for the homeless and the needy.
“This is actually a relatively quiet day for us,” said staff member Kathy Izard. “During the week we feed up to 400 people.”
Izard marshals volunteers with a friendly, but impressively efficient manner. It is clear that there is a premium on her time and she is making full use of her limited resources. Up to 10,000 volunteers a year donate time and food here. Izard spent years volunteering the kitchen.
“When you turn up you never know what food has been donated, so you just make something up on the spot,” she said. “So far we’ve never run out of food.”
Izard pauses to direct volunteers toward the kitchen and trains one on the spot on handing out mail.
“For many of the people we serve, this is their only address,” she explained. “If you don’t have an address, it’s hard to find work.”
Izard said that the center has been seeing people that they have never seen before, people who have never needed free food but have been left without jobs and homes as a result of America’s longest and deepest recession since the 1930s.
“A lot of the people we see coming through were on the margins before the downturn,” she said. “When the recession hit, it took away their safety net.”
“Most of those people never thought they’d end up here,” she added.
Paul McDougald, 37, is waiting for a shower. He used to work in a warehouse unloading and loading trucks, but has been out of work since May 2008 and now sleeps at a homeless shelter.
“I’ve been trying to find a job ever since, but there’s nothing out there,” he said. “It’s real stressful. Without this place I would be in real trouble.”
“Some day the Lord is going to help me out of this,” he added.
The doors open at 11:15am and people file in, lining up in an orderly fashion to receive the day’s meal. Served on plastic trays, today it consists of a small salad, a slice of roast beef, a bread roll, green beans and potatoes and a cupcake.
The meal is eaten in virtual silence. Few people feel much like talking here.
While tucking into his food, Charlie Edwards, 58, said that “bad financial choices and unreliable so-called friends” had brought him to this point.
Unable to find work in his profession – circuit board manufacturing – he said he does not see any way forward in Charlotte.
“Work in my specialty is pretty much non-existent right now,” Edwards said. “If I could find anything that would pay a tolerable wage, I’d take it.”
“But who’s going to hire a 58-year-old for a job when they can hire a young man?” he asked. “People are not too interested in training someone my age.”
Liz Clasen-Kelly, the Urban Ministry Center’s associate executive director, said that although statistics do not exist on the age of people who come through the door,many of them are middle-aged men who lose out to younger men when trying to get back into the job market.
She said that since 2007 the number of people coming for the free meals the center hands out has risen 21 percent and is still climbing. One silver lining for the center: While there are more mouths to feed, the number of volunteers turning up to help has also increased.
“There has always been a history of inequity in America,” she said. “But the housing crisis has shown many people that this could happen to their neighbors. That awareness has encouraged them to volunteer.”
“It’s not a national policy, it doesn’t solve the problem of homelessness in this country,” she said. “But every little bit helps and we’re grateful for the many individual acts of generosity we see.”
Photo by Carlos Barria