Sunday, March 09, 2008

"Temporary" food bank sees no end in sight
March 7, 2008

Noon is approaching, and the lineups have slowed to a trickle. The little food bank at St. John the Divine Church closes at noon, so the regulars know to come early.
Anne Henderson is one of several St. John congregation members who volunteer at the church’s food bank every Tuesday and Friday. A 10-year veteran of the work, Henderson admits to feeling increasingly discouraged.
“Seeing the young people is hard,” says Henderson. “They come in looking like relatively nice kids, but they’ve obviously got pain in their lives. They can’t get any income assistance because they have no work history.
“Pretty soon, they’re into the drugs because of their pain. Six months later, you see them in here looking so lost.”
The food bank was intended as a temporary measure in a time of crisis when it first started. But 15 years on, the need has only grown. “We’ve all gotten a little older, a little more tired, and a little shorter of money,” says Henderson, whose church runs the program on donations.
Today has been slower than usual. Henderson suspects that’s because of a recent visit to the office of Employment and Income Assistance Minister Claude Richmond.
Church members were there to make a point about impossibly low welfare rates by bringing it to Richmond’s attention that his own ministry was handing out information sheets directing clients to go get food at the church. But all that did was prompt the ministry to quit telling people about the food bank.
People can come to the food bank once a month to pick 10 or 12 items from an eclectic list of 60 or so household goods the church keeps in stock.
Today’s list runs the gamut: green beans; dog food; coconut milk; toilet paper; artichoke hearts.
“We really try to respect choices, and to let people choose the food they want. They can let us know if they’re on a special diet and we’ll try to work with that,” says Henderson.
Henderson has met all kinds at the food bank. One client was a former government employee who couldn’t get her feet back under her after losing her job in the “purge” after the 2001 election.
“She was on Employment Insurance for a while, but that ran out and she ended up on welfare. In the end, she couldn’t afford to keep her apartment,” recalls Henderson. “She told me she never in her life imagined she’d get to this point.”
At the table where people check in, a 52-year-old window installer tells us of breaking his wrist helping a friend put up Christmas lights. He’s scratching by for now on “medical EI,” but wondering what will happen if his year of support comes to an end and his wrist still isn’t strong enough to go back to his old line of work.
I recognize another client from my time last fall gathering information on street issues for a Times-Colonist series. I have a haunting photo of him from that period, packing up his stuff in the dark of early morning after the police arrived to move him along from a Fort Street doorway.
He has since found a place to live, thanks to a stranger who spotted him a couple months ago at the Upper Room soup kitchen and offered help with getting on disability and finding an apartment.
“I’d been on the streets 10 years,” he tells me. “I’ve got a mental thing going on, and find it hard to deal with people. But this time I feel like I’ve got somebody backing me. The doctor put me on medication to settle my mind down, and that’s helped a lot, too.”
Henderson polled her fellow food-bank volunteers in anticipation of my visit, and hands me a sheet of their written comments.
One expressed surprise that the people who attend aren’t angrier at their desperate situations. Another recalled a grateful client who found a way to burn a few CDs of Christmas music to sell on the street as a way of raising money for the food bank. “I am touched by the support they offer each other,” noted another.
“We all know that people on social assistance can’t buy a nutritionally adequate diet,” one of the writers summed up.
“It is sad indeed to see pale, haggard faces and bad teeth, and know that we are only able to offer food for a day or two - and to know that these people will only get sicker.”

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