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History and Help 

Proceeds from a tour of Armory Park homes go to feed the hungry

Given our pathology of self-reliance, hunger doesn't eagerly announce itself in America. So I have to go looking. I find it—or at least its potential—on the third floor of downtown's Armory Park Apartments.

That's where I meet Marcia Donovan. She's 67, suffers from cancer and arthritis, and scrapes by on a $937 monthly Social Security check. This meager sum puts her $15 over the qualifying income limit for Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System insurance, and it doesn't give her enough to pay rent, cover medical costs and buy ample food to stay otherwise healthy.

Enter Neighbors Feeding Neighbors. Each week, the home-grown program in the Armory Park Neighborhood fills Donovan's refrigerator with freshly prepared meals.

It's what the Rev. Jefferson Bailey calls "comfort food." Bailey started the meal project three years ago in a cheery kitchen at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, a few blocks from Donovan's apartment.

And comfort is just what Donovan needs. She's among a surprisingly large but well-hidden number of neighborhood residents who hover near the federal poverty threshold. Bailey's program feeds at least 12 of those people, all through private donations and funds raised by the annual Armory Park Home Tour.

For Donovan, it literally means the difference between a good meal or going to bed hungry. "You figure you can't give up rent," she says. "And the only luxury I've got is cable, and I'm not giving up my TV. I'm sorry; that's my recreation. Do I give up my cell phone? No, that becomes a health emergency problem."

So what gets sacrificed? Food.

Donovan says she isn't the only senior citizen who's been close to making that tough call. "A lot of us are without money. I never thought I'd end up like this. I've got a Ph.D. I've worked for 40 years. I'm just elderly."

Adding insult, she points to budget cuts by the Arizona Legislature that are making life more difficult for people like her. "They're cutting from the bottom, figuring either that we'll just give up—and a number of people have, they're really depressed—or we'll just kind of die off."

Nearly 800,000 senior citizens in this country either struggle to obtain food or suffer outright from hunger, according to the Meals on Wheels Association. Not surprisingly, older Americans who don't have adequate, nutritious food are at greater risk for health problems such as strokes. Hunger can also lessen the effectiveness of prescription drugs, and lead to depression and isolation.

Exacerbating the problem are local poverty rates that exceed the national average. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2005 American Community Survey, more than 16 percent of Tucson families fell beneath the federal poverty line, compared to the national average of 10.2 percent. Those numbers have undoubtedly worsened in the current recession.

Things get even more complicated when the poor are elderly shut-ins. Then the biggest hurdle is simply finding them, says Bailey. He started Neighbors Feeding Neighbors when a government friend told him that 40 percent of Armory Park residents live below the federal poverty level—a fact that's hardly obvious when you stroll around this old, well-kept neighborhood.

By 2007, he had volunteers knocking on doors. As news of the program spread, "there was a line around the block," he says. "Then we got the word out that it wasn't for people who could walk here. It was for people who couldn't get out of their homes—people who were homebound or could not otherwise provide for themselves."

Today, a rotating corps of some 30 volunteers cook the meals, and dispatch them throughout the neighborhood. People are helped "regardless of their religious affiliation," says Bailey. "The only requirement to get on this program is need. We don't ask why. If they're hungry, we feed them."

Proceeds from the Armory Park Home Tour keep that assistance alive. That's when the history and architecture of this neighborhood come in handy; last year, the event raised nearly $4,000.

Dating back to the railroad era, Amory Park showcases various phases of Tucson architecture. The self-guided tour includes eight homes, each exemplifying a notch on that eclectic timeline.

A particular highlight is the Velasco House. Dating from 1850, it served as a print shop for Carlos Velasco, publisher of Tucson's first Spanish-language newspaper. The frontier-era building—with its stout adobe walls and saguaro-ribbed ceilings—had fallen into terrible disrepair when it was purchased in the early 1970s by interior designer Bill Dillon and several partners. Today, years of precise restoration have graced the home with an airy, period elegance accented by a lush, cloistered garden.

Such structures highlight the breadth of Armory Park's historic architecture—and how it's being tweaked by modernity, says Chris Stebe, a landscape architect and neighborhood resident spearheading the tour. The eight homes "offer a good cross-section of what's happening in urban-neighborhood Tucson. They show the potential of neighborhoods surrounding downtown.

"There's a transition going on downtown," says Stebe, "a mix of historic buildings, but also an influx of these buildings being brought back and renovated. It really represents what Tucson is striving to be."

That transition remains a definite work in progress. Just ask Marcia Donovan. Before moving into Armory Park, she'd rented a northside apartment that drained her savings. Then she wound up in the hospital with cancer. "I was a total mess," she says, "and I couldn't afford that other apartment."

But a young apartment manager didn't miss the chance to separate Donovan from her last scrap of money.

"Even though I got out of there on hardship, they still charged me $800 for moving and breaking my lease," Donovan says. "So this is what I said to her: 'There's a thing called compassion, and you lack it. One day, you might have to learn the hard way to depend upon somebody else's compassion.'"

These days, Donovan has found a new home in an old neighborhood where compassion is alive.

Tim Vanderpool is a member of the Armory Park Neighborhood Association's board of directors.

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