Peoria’s nonprofit organizations are working hard to reduce poverty— filling an increased need for food, clothing and shelter, and providing employment and job training programs. But raising awareness must come first.
It’s Thursday morning at the corner of Wayne and Madison in Peoria. Barbara Hartnett looks out over the bustling weekly thrift drive in the garage of the main building at Friendship House. A three-legged “pugle” named Maddie trots behind her, a permanent tag-a-long since she was rescued from the drug-ridden house next door. Tied to the porch and left to fend for herself, minus one paw lost in a dog fight, her presence is a calming one. Dogs are a great icebreaker to lessen the separation between our own different trials and tribulations, Hartnett explains. The organization has since acquired Maddie’s vacant building and renovated it to house Dress for Success, a professional job coaching program for women, complete with a wellstocked boutique to “outfit women from head to toe” for job interviews.
Hartnett has seen a lot in her 10 years at Friendship House, a local nonprofit that provides meals, education, training and other resources to about 10,000 people each year. As executive director, she works to advance the group’s initiatives, which, along with Dress for Success, include children’s afterschool and summer programming; RSVP, a senior volunteer network; and a Hispanic outreach program, among an ever-growing list of community projects, like the upcoming baby shower for new and expecting mothers in the neighborhood. Today, volunteers are stuffing diaper bags, donated by Caterpillar, with supplies from in-kind donors for the first-time event. But more and more, the soup kitchen and food pantry have become the organization’s top priorities.
“Our emergency services have been increasing 30 to 40 percent per year in the last three years,” Hartnett explains. “We’ve run out of food earlier and earlier.” One of the organization’s largest fundraisers is the 25-year-old Stuff-A-Bus food drive, sponsored by CityLink and Kroger each fall. Donations to the campaign usually last through the summer, Hartnett says. “This year, we ran out of food in February.”
Friendship House is not alone. On Peoria’s south side, Common Place offers academic assistance, life skills, and cultural and literacy programming to children and adults in another hard-hit neighborhood. Executive Director Connie Voss expresses similar dismay, noting that two to four times as many people are coming in each month for food and basic supplies as just a few years ago. “It has not slowed down,” she explains.
More echoes resound at South Side Mission, a not-for-profit serving up its five main covenants—loving, feeding, housing, teaching and preaching—to residents of the 61605 zip code—among the hundred poorest zip codes in the country, states Meg Newell, associate executive director of marketing & development. “Any time there’s an economic downturn, the poor are the first to feel the impact and the last tofeel the recovery. That’s a universal fact… Our food pantry service is up; our free and reduced lunches are up; our basic needs are up.”
Gina Edwards, vice president of marketing at the Heart of Illinois United Way, confirms that this trend is a community-wide concern. “[The bad economy] has really increased what we call basic needs— people who need food, clothing and shelter,” she says. With Peoria County’s poverty rate at 14 percent—or 25,892 people out of 2010’s total population of 186,494—the Social Impact Research Center of the Chicago-based Heartland Alliance has placed the county on its “Poverty Watch List.” The list is based on high school graduation, unemployment, teen birth and poverty rates—as classified by the federal poverty-level thresholds established by the U.S. Census Bureau: for a family of four, an annual household income of $22,314 or less.
Clete Winkelmann, president and CEO of Children’s Home Association of Illinois, writes that in 2010, Peoria County reported nearly 24 percent of all children were living in poverty, an increase of about three percent since 2008. To visualize this statistic, if all of those 10,892 kids were to sit together, they would be just shy of filling the entire Peoria Civic Center Arena to capacity.
Poverty’s a growing problem across the country, and it’s not easily solved. In Time magazine last November, journalist Barbara Kiviat eloquently laid out this national dilemma, writing, “Poverty is daunting in its complexity; it’s geographically diverse, chaotic and tied to the dynamics of both a single neighborhood and the national economy.” And as it does with so many national trends, the Peoria area mirrors these complex currents.
Changing Faces of Poverty
It’s not so cut and dry, suggests Sandy Markert, CEO of the Peoria YWCA. Too many people have this idea of poverty as “the man on the street with the bottle in a paper bag, or the woman pushing the cart,” she explains. “But the face of homelessness has changed.”
Though she’s only been in Peoria a year, Markert has poured her heart into the YWCA’s homeless services, which include housing initiatives, a family cot program and a day center—a “safe location out of the elements” for those who need to rest, cook, do laundry or shower, and a stable address for incoming mail and phone calls. Having retired from the Kokomo, Indiana YWCA in 1997, Markert has been running on a second wind ever since, as 12 YWCA locations in as many years have sought her expertise. One of her first steps in Peoria was to move the group’s headquarters from the Lakeview site to its present location at 826 SW Adams. Seeing the people you are helping makes a world of difference, she says.
Markert describes the diverse ranks of people who come to the Day Center each day: a mid-30s woman with a mental disability, a college student on a scholarship with no friends or family in the area, a single father who lost his job, and increasingly, “intact families—a mother and father with kids.” She says families now make up the majority of participants in their programs.
Meanwhile, at Common Place, Voss has seen an increase in children and teens taking on adult roles, often “with a lot of responsibility for siblings,” she says. “We have children asking for things…[that] the parent needs. The children are asking because the parents, for whatever reason, are not comfortable enough to ask.”
And that’s in part due to these new faces of poverty—families facing new hardships but not yet ready to relinquish their pride, Hartnett says. She uncomfortably recounts seeing a familiar woman getting supplies for her family at Friendship House. It was a dramatic turn of events, for just two years earlier, the same woman had been a regular donor and volunteer at the pantry.
“Today, it’s very easy to get poor. There’s been so much sliding from the middle class into the ranks of poverty,” Hartnett says. “If you had a good job and you lose it, a lot of times the COBRA to maintain your insurance is [too expensive]. If you have no income but you still have rent or a mortgage to pay—any money must go to that. Then, if someone gets sick and there’s no insurance, it doesn’t matter where you started in the economy—you will end up at a place like Friendship House…” Hartnett trails off.
Building a Network
On a rainy, listless afternoon in Peoria, Rich Draeger takes on his role as assistant development director at the Salvation Army Heartland Division with an easy smile. “It’s raining outside, but I am inside,” his philosophy goes. Without such a positive outlook, this job might be wearying, for in Peoria alone, the Army runs numerous shelters, a daily soup kitchen and food pantry, along with a variety of meal programs. But it’s still not enough, Draeger says. That’s why the Salvation Army is a part of both the Peoria Anti-Hunger Coalition (PAHC) and the Heart of Illinois Continuum of Care (HOICOC).
The Peoria Anti-Hunger Coalition is a network of about 40 food pantries throughout Peoria and the surrounding communities, whose members meet monthly to pool resources, raise funds and collect statistics. Each county has at least one food pantry available to families who need the assistance, explains Pepper Bauer, PAHC president. The member pantries, which include key players like Heart of Illinois Harvest, Peoria Area Food Bank, South Side Office of Concern and the Midwest Food Bank, serve in excess of 15,000 individuals a month across central Illinois.
Meanwhile, the Continuum of Care is a coalition of organizations working to help the homeless and near-homeless obtain housing, economic stability and an enhanced quality of life. Its partner agencies offer a comprehensive suite of services that encompass everything from residential programs and crisis intervention to vocational training and home healthcare.
A DAY IN THE LIFE
Dream Center Peoria offers a unique opportunity to see the world through the eyes of the poor with its Poverty Simulation Program, a role-playing scenario of a family unit living in poverty. Exercises include one month of decision-making— seeking services and support, obtaining financial assistance and spending money—condensed into a real-time format. The program shows participants the difficulty of making decisions while living in poverty:
Week 1: The month has just begun, and you have to figure out what to do first. “I have no job, and my bills are due. I have to get to work, what am I going to do with the baby?”
Week 2: You are realizing that it is frustrating to wait in line and do not have enough money to pay for bills. “I’m so hungry and my dad hasn’t gone to the store.” “If I’m late again, I’ll be fired.”
Week 3: If you have not paid your mortgage, you will receive an eviction notice. “I wonder what the pawn shop will give me for this?”
Week 4: You will have to get all your bills paid and the family fed by the end of the week. “What’s the minimum amount I can pay to keep my utilities on?” “The house needs repairs.”
To schedule a Poverty Simulation for your organization or business, call (309) 676-3000 or learn more at dreamcenterpeoria.org.
“We really have to partner with a lot of other agencies to try to make sure all those needs are met,” Draeger explains. That could mean teaching people how to cook and eat healthy—via a partnership with the 4-H and University of Illinois Extension or South Side Mission’s community garden program—or an education or job training program through Illinois Central College or the Central Illinois Goodwill Learning Center. “We provide one piece of the equation… then we try to get each individual set up with the appropriate agencies to meet their other needs.”
Many of those needs are job-related.
“The jobs that are available today…many of our folks are not prepared for,” says McFarland Bragg, president and CEO of the Peoria Citizens Committee for Economic Opportunity (PCCEO). “They don’t have the skillsets necessary to fill the jobs.”
The PCCEO was born out of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 as the local agency authorized by the federal government to administer anti-poverty Community Action Programs. In its 46-year history, the organization has developed programs like Head Start, senior drop-in centers, alcohol rehabilitation, day care, weatherization and housing rehabilitation services, and partnered with institutions like ICC on specialized training programs. Its main goal, Bragg explains, is to help individuals work toward self-sufficiency.
He stresses that while there are thousands of open positions in the manufacturing and healthcare industries, they are going unfilled because of an untrained labor force. “It’s not the way it was 30 years ago,” he says. “Especially now with [high-tech] robotics…it’s a different skill set that we need, and right now we are not producing enough folks with those skills.” The PCCEO’s bridge program, offered in conjunction with ICC, is geared to expose people to the new types of jobs available in today’s manufacturing world—the type of training people need to get back on their feet, and the first step toward getting out of poverty.
“There are a lot of homeless and a lot of poor, but they are not without potential… They just don’t have the tools,” explains Newell. South Side Mission also provides skills training and educational opportunities to “give them the tools to succeed,” she explains.
The Dress for Success program at Friendship House is another such program. “The clothes are secondary,” declares Hartnett. “We do a lot of coaching—fixing resumes, teaching how to interview… We encourage them to move up the job ladder…and push them to go back to school, get their GED or start college.”
Without proper education or training, the jobs available are often only minimum-wage, and while the current minimum wage in Illinois is higher than in most states, “it’s very difficult to work at [that rate] and raise any kind of family,” Bauer notes. “I know people who have been working two or three jobs, but they still have to come to the food pantry because they’re minimum-wage jobs, and they have no benefits,” she says, noting that employers often cap hours below 40 a week to avoid overtime and benefit requirements.
“Without a good job, there are a lot of people that go without,” says York Powers, family and community coordinator for Peoria Public School District 150. “Whether low-income or middle-class, a lot of families live paycheck to paycheck. You might get a medical bill or something comes up, and you find you’re skating uphill.”
Just about everyone agrees that education is the key. “The great amounts of those who come to the pantry aren’t educated,” Bauer explains. “I’ve run my pantry for 30 years… I’ve had some of the brightest little girls, who you thought would have the greatest futures…but then they get pregnant at 15, have three more kids by the time they’re 18, and their future slips away…because they didn’t finish their education.”
The Heartland Alliance report states that workers without a high school diploma are four times more likely to be unemployed than those who have a bachelor’s degree. “Poverty and illiteracy often go hand in hand,” notes Voss. “If a person is illiterate, of course it affects [their] getting a job, and it affects their quality of life, but it also affects the quality of their child’s life.”
Poverty in Schools
“A lot of people don’t think about poverty affecting children the most,” explains Edwards, “but it’s important for [all children] to have the same opportunities…whether their parents are in poverty or not.” And that is York Powers’ job at District 150.
Powers’ main prerogative is to coordinate parent activities across the district, but in his additional role as homeless liaison, he ensures that children don’t feel out of place because of their housing situation. “The last thing we want them to worry about when they come to school…is ‘Do I have a notebook? Do I have a book bag? Do I have a uniform to wear to school?’” he says. “We try to alleviate as many of these obstacles…as we can.”
Powers explains that in education, “homeless” extends beyond the common definition. “It’s not only the family that’s living under the bridge, in a box or out of a car. By education standards, what qualifies as homeless are also the families who are doubled up, [and]…those families living in shelters or hotels due to housing transitions.”
Three out of four children in District 150 come from low-income families, as indicated by the number of students who receive free or reduced (F/R) lunches across all 28 schools, explains Chris Coplan, director of public relations. In the 2010-11 school year, 74.9 percent of students district-wide received F/R meals; at Glen Oak Primary School alone, that figure was 97.3 percent.
Powers reaches out to these struggling families, but often, the lack of a stable address or phone number makes it difficult to reach the parents, let alone provide support. “Pride is a wonderful beast,” he says. “No one really wants to admit they’re having problems, but…we want families to know that there are services for their children to obtain.”
Edwards stresses the importance of Powers’ position. “If a child [living in poverty] has the same access to education as a child who is not…there’s a better chance they’ll succeed in school, they’ll graduate, and have the income that will carry them through life.”
Gearing Toward Solutions, Awareness
“In an ideal world, we’d have higher tax revenue to support our social services and provide resources to these families, our food banks wouldn’t run low, our shelter would be large enough to house the capacity of people—we’d have more resources for them,” York lists. But everyone knows someone who’s out of work, and today, more and more people are obligated to help their own family and friends. Hartnett thinks that’s part of the reason so many food banks and nonprofits are low on donations. “People are giving in their own communities,” she says. “Maybe they’re supporting their sister…or the 28-year-old who can’t find a job after college. Obviously, that’s the first place you would help—in your own family. Unfortunately, I think there’s just less left over for the people we serve.”
McFarland Bragg agrees. “People have so many things to worry about right now. They are functioning around the basics of survival. It’s difficult for them to think about other folks, because they are trying to fend off these things from impacting their own families.”
And with limited grant dollars and continued funding cuts, there’s even more need for nonprofits and service providers to work together. Draeger promotes unity in approaching lawmakers and funders collectively. “Instead of 10 people coming to talk to them individually, having one unified meeting where several groups are participating…is less inundating,” he explains.
“Nonprofits compete with each other, which is kind of silly in a way,” he continues. “But… we can’t do every program that, say, the South Side Mission or Peoria Rescue Ministries does. So what we try to do is…not repeat services, but work together where we can so people can get the appropriate help they need.”
Voss agrees. “It takes a community working together and awareness to understand the needs,” she says, but most critical is the need to raise awareness. “Because everything else depends on that.”
She offers an example. “There was a little girl in Dunlap who saw a newspaper article and took up a collection at her school. She’s been in three times now with food, winter coats and other things,” she says, struck by her own words. In true not-for-profit fashion, Voss gushes over the child’s generosity, humble in her own mission, beside central Illinois’ other nonprofits, to work tirelessly for change. It will take more individuals like her, groups working together, and a community united by necessity to continue the fight. iBi