'The Other Bloomington'
On a bench outside the First United Methodist Church, John Hammond, 52, sits clutching a black lighter and a slowly burning cigarette. Across the street, people mingle at the bus stop, their hands shoved into pockets, their faces downturned against the cutting November wind. An empty Styrofoam cup drifts down the sidewalk, colliding with the skittering leaves left over from fall.
The sound of buses makes the otherwise quiet street sound monstrous. Groans of engines and the screech of brakes echo against the stone face of the church. Women in business suits pass by, walking quickly and avoiding eye contact. Men in shaggy coats nod and say hello.
Hammond's bright blue eyes see it all from below the brim of his red and white baseball cap. "I worked all my life," he says. "My background is psychology and business management from IU, with 25 years' management experience. You wouldn't expect to find somebody like me down here. But it can happen to anybody."
On a rainy November afternoon, around 25 individuals amble into Geno's Cafeteria, a local soup kitchen from Backstreet Missions that serves free meals five days a week. Bundled up to fight the howling wind and sideways rain people of all ages enter. The only age group absent is children, but perhaps the bad weather is keeping them at home.
Today's menu includes beef and noodles, chicken and rice, asparagus, a pastry assortment with cookies, donuts and muffins, and a salad bar. Three servers stand on the food side, helping those in need receive a well-balanced and comforting meal on this cold day.
The atmosphere is friendly. Almost nobody is sitting at a table alone. They either came to eat in pairs or groups, or came to meet up with the usual crowd.
Mother Hubbard's Cupboard, Stepping Stones, Shalom Community Center and Martha's House will ask Bloomington to participate in National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week Nov. 16-22 to bring awareness to poverty in the community.
It is a collaborative effort between the four non-profit organizations to teach community members about poverty and empower them to take action against poverty in Bloomington. The week's events include Food for Thought, Bloomington, Stand Up! and the Bloomington Food Stamp Challenge.
Food for Thought is a returning program under which several local restaurants donate a portion of proceeds to the participating non-profit organizations.
"Stepping Stones partnered with Martha's House last year to create what was called the Food for Thought fundraiser," Stepping Stones Assistant Director Warren Wade said in an e-mail. "We collaborated and recruited a handful of restaurants to donate a portion of their proceeds to our two agencies."
If America’s economic decline continues, local nonprofits that serve those in poverty anticipate larger demands for their services.
Organizations such as Backstreet Missions, Shalom Community Center, Stepping Stones and Community Kitchen expect more people will seek their help in the months ahead.
Community Kitchen is devoted to eliminating hunger in Monroe County by providing meals to the hungry. The agency saw a slight increase in October and expects the numbers to continue to rise.
“It wouldn’t surprise me to see a 10 percent rise in numbers over the next six months,” said Vicki Pierce, Community Kitchen’s executive director.
With food and gas prices rising in a slowing economy, it seems there is no escape for low-income families in Bloomington. As they try to survive paycheck to paycheck, choices must be made. Is there enough money to pay the electric bill? Is there enough put aside for an emergency? Is there enough for groceries and the bills?
While many face these types of questions with uncertainty, there are small solutions that can help save money and lead to another positive outcome -- better nutrition.
Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard’s (MHC) Community Gardens Program teaches patrons and Bloomington residents an economical way to grow food in their own backyards. By combining nutritional and gardening education, participants learn a basic life skill that people of all ages are lacking in modern times.
“I strongly feel that having more community food security and having more home gardens is one of the keys of cutting down on the amount of poverty in a community and to just creating a beautiful and sustainable community,” says Stephanie Solomon, MHC’s assistant director.
When the friend John Collins was staying with told him he was moving across the country, Collins was forced to find a new place to live. His answer came from one of many faith-based organizations in town that serve the impoverished, Backstreet Missions.
"My brother stayed here once and told me a little about it," Collins explained. "I went to the Shalom Center, and they mentioned something about it too, so I came out here, and they took me in."
Backstreet Missions is a Christian-based organization dedicated to helping those in need. With a variety of programs and services, the mission has served Bloomington for 13 years.
Laura Hannum is one of Monroe County's estimated 2,800 single mothers with children under 18. But she doesn't count herself among the nearly one-third of them who, according to 2006 Census data, live in poverty.
Hannum has an education, a good job and a career. She also has a house and an ex-husband she can count on for support -- financial and parental.
Her 8-year-old son Sam is healthy, and so is she. They have private health insurance. And she has quality, affordable child care for her son while she works 40 hours a week. She even has options for his care.
"I have the things that I need," the 35-year-old paralegal says. "I just don't necessarily have the things I want."
LINKS: "The Other Bloomington"
With a slow, steady swagger, Kent Johnson smiles and holds his head high as he leads his friend Enrique north on Lincoln Street toward the Shalom Community Center. Both of them radiate hope as they walk, despite their experiences living below the poverty line.
Johnson lost his job, his apartment and all his possessions after moving to Bloomington from Chicago to help his daughter. He ended up homeless, eating at Shalom and sleeping on the streets.
But on this golden spring morning, Johnson shows no signs of struggle. He is happy to help a friend. Enrique has been working 12-hour days for $50 under-the-table.
"It's hard to imagine things like that happening in Bloomington," Johnson says with a sigh. "But they do."
According to the 2006 Census, 37.3 % of Bloomington residents 18 and older live below the poverty line.
VIDEO: Shalom Means "Welcome"
LINKS: "The Other Bloomington"
From the street, Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard (MHC) is barely visible to the eye. The building in a strip mall on Bloomington’s south side is small and modest, but the significance of its services is not.
Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard is a local food pantry that focuses on nutrition, organic growing and educating its clients, according to Brooke Gentile, the MHC executive director.
“I was really excited to work at Mother Hubbard’s because we provide the healthiest food possible,” she said. “And also because we empower everyone involved.”