The needs of the homeless and the hungry rise in prominence during the holidays.
But those who work with those problems year round are always quick to say the problems are still there after the attention wanders once the holidays are over.
But the need during the Christmas season is different in some ways, said Barbara Tillery, director of social services for The Salvation Army.
“It’s almost like a desperate call, ‘My children won’t have anything for Christmas. How can I face them on Christmas morning and they don’t have anything. They didn’t get anything last year,’” Tillery said on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines.”
The Salvation Army’s primary service is running shelters for the homeless. But it also provides gifts during the holidays for senior citizens as well as its Angel Tree program of gifts for children.
“Children – that’s what Christmas is about,” Tillery said. “But for many families here in Memphis, that won’t be the case.”
“Behind The Headlines,” hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, also featured Sally Jones Heinz, executive director of the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association, and Estella Mayhue-Greer, president and CEO of the Mid-South Food Bank. The program can be seen on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.
The three agencies work together in a coordinated safety net in which needs are changing and shifting.
“We’re seeing a different kind of person or family come into emergency services,” Heinz said, recalling a woman seeking help last month who had been unemployed since January. “She had saved. She had done everything right. She had three children but she hadn’t been able to find another job.”
Mayhue-Greer said 30 percent to 40 percent of those receiving food through agencies that are partners with the food bank don’t get any government assistance because they work and make too much to qualify for the benefits.
“But they need help. These are people who probably had two household incomes. They are down to one or maybe half of that income,” she said. “A lot of people who were working full time are now working part time. They have two part-time jobs to make ends meet.”
And all three have dealt with stereotypes about dependence on government benefits or those who get the help but still have cars.
“The cars that drive up on that lot are not raggedy cars. They are up-to-date cars,” Tillery said. “You have to know that these are people who have worked in the past and that may be all they have. Your car can be your home and you fight to hold onto that transportation so you can get to work and maybe so you and your children can sleep in it at night.”
MIFA, which is the central intake for the homeless as well as emergency services, gets 15,000 requests for financial assistance a year through its emergency services operation and is only able to help 5,000 people, according to Heinz.
“We are seeing more people who never imagined they would be at MIFA asking for assistance,” she said.
The Mid-South Food Bank began as a provider of food in emergency situations of relatively short duration.
“We’ve now become a supplement,” Mayhue-Greer said. “We understand that hunger is a health issue and homelessness is a health issue.”
That means the food bank buys and distributes more produce than it once did and when the food bank buys food it chooses carefully taking into account the sodium level and whether canned fruit is packed in syrup or its own juice.
The organization has box lunches designed especially for senior citizens and there is a weekend backpack for children whose only meals may come at school.
“We even have to consider that there may not be utilities at home,” Mayhue-Greer said of the backpack program.
Tillery noted that The Salvation Army shelter was home to 63 children Thanksgiving week.
“We think about that man on the street. We think about that alcoholic. These are women and children that are homeless,” she said. “Many of them have been evicted because they aren’t able to pay the rent. We have mothers that work every day. But the income is not sufficient enough for them to pay the rent and pay the utility bill and keep the kids fed. It’s a whole different ballgame now.”