More Poor

Skyrocketing numbers of people are turning to the Food Bank and other agencies for help

As he loads up his backpack and bicycle with items obtained from the Community Food Bank's pantry at the Victory Assembly of God church near Interstate 10 and Ruthrauff Road, Chris Curtis reflects on his current economic condition.

"There's very little work," the 20-year resident of Tucson observes. Curtis says he was steadily employed in construction until about a year ago, but in 2009, he has only found three days of day labor so far. He's had to resort to getting emergency food supplies for the last six months, and says a relative is helping him get by.

"I don't know what I'll do if I can't find work," Curtis admits. "I've never seen it this bad."

According to Pastor Eli Marez, the number of people who are looking for work like Curtis has exploded at the food pantry. He estimates the number of those asking about jobs has quadrupled.

"There's something unique going on," Marez says of the poor economy and people wanting to work. "I tell them not to lose hope."

A few miles to the south, near I-10 and Grant Road, Vincent Cardenas stands among a steady stream of people waiting to secure supplies from a Food Bank pantry operated by Caring Ministries.

"Day labor is hard to find," Cardenas acknowledges. "I went to three places today and couldn't find anything."

For financial reasons, the Food Bank recently reduced the number of emergency boxes available each month per family from two to one. That change didn't surprise Cardenas; given the huge demand for assistance, what surprised him is that the agency is still in business, he says, only half-jokingly,

Curtis and Cardenas are two of an enormous group of people who each month receive help from the Community Food Bank. With the tough state of the local economy, their numbers have soared.

Jack Parris, a spokesman for the Food Bank, reports that those receiving emergency food boxes grew rapidly last year. Even after the reduction to once-per-month assistance, more than 12,200 boxes were distributed in January.

Parris expects that number to rise. He says that donations to the agency have gone up--just not as fast as the demand for help has gone up.

"We've seen a slight increase in both (donated) food and money," he says, adding that those figures typically drop off in the first three months of the year.

At the local Salvation Army, public-relations director Tamara McElwee states that overall donations are down about 25 percent since the holiday season.

At the same time, McElwee says the demand for services is up greatly. "It's increased 65 percent for utility assistance," she says, "50 percent for rental assistance, and 75 to 80 percent for mortgage assistance."

The number of people seeking help at Casa Maria in South Tucson has also risen substantially. Organizer Brian Flagg indicates the figures have gone up about 15 percent, to 670 individuals plus 225 families receiving food daily.

Despite the recession, Flagg says donations to Casa Maria have remained steady. "People who can," he says in appreciation, "have kicked in a little."

At the Primavera Foundation, executive director Peggy Hutchison says the organization's financial situation has also remained steady. While funding from governments has been reduced, Hutchison says individuals and foundations have made up for those cuts.

Despite that, Hutchison says, Primavera is looking to make reductions that wouldn't affect the agency's programs. Some staffing positions have been frozen, and Hutchison adds they're seeking to find "creative ways to cut back."

While Primavera's funding may be level, the demand for their services, Hutchison observes, has increased substantially.

"We're a growth industry," Hutchison declares of those helping the poor. "There are a lot of folks who are really struggling."

That situation, she adds, has led Primavera to turn away people who are looking for work but have housing. "We just don't have the capacity to serve them," she laments.

At the same time, even though the fiscal year is only a little more than half over, the agency is close to achieving its annual goal of meeting with 500 people under its homeless-outreach project.

"The program participants work really hard. It's such a privilege to work with them," Hutchison says of those who use Primavera's array of services.

Unfortunately, the number of those people will probably continue to climb: Those involved with helping Tucson's poor don't see much reason for optimism over the next year.

Parris from the Food Bank anticipates things continuing to be tough for 12 to 18 months. "It will still be difficult for those needing food," he predicts.

McElwee, from the Salvation Army, agrees. "We're anticipating a much more difficult year," she says.

Hutchison is a little more upbeat, believing that things will start to look up by the summer of 2010.

"We haven't seen the worst yet," she says, "but next year, things will turn around. However, trickle-down (economics) takes forever, so individuals may not feel the effect then. For them, it will be another rough year."

Flagg, from Casa Maria, is more pessimistic. "My big fear," he says, "is that we only have so much capacity (to feed people). There's no way to feed many more people, so I'm worried about the future.

"I'm really frightened about what this could lead to. I'm hoping the economic stimulus package helps."

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