On a cool, sunny late spring morning, 70 or so men and women stand in line at the Urban Ministry Center Uptown, waiting to receive a free meal from the Center's 365-days-a-year soup kitchen. Some of the people in line present the careworn, used-clothes appearance that most of us associate with the homeless. Others, though, not so much. One man is wearing new jeans, a button-down blue shirt, wool sportcoat, and a distinctly uncomfortable expression on his face. A young woman wearing a worn North Face jacket over tan sweats stands in line, staring at the ground. About a third of the others look much like these two folks, i.e., not who you'd normally expect to find at a soup kitchen. One of these men -- the only one who would talk on record, and then only on condition of anonymity -- said he'd been coming to the Urban Ministry Center for a meal "about twice a week for about four weeks," after his unemployment checks ran out. "There are a lot more of us in this kind of mess than you think," he says, then quips, "I can see it now: Urban Ministry -- it's not just for the homeless anymore," then laughs and shakes his head.
Indeed it isn't. The Urban Ministry Center, set up to help the city's homeless population, has found itself providing food, in the current deep recession, to some people its staff never expected to see. Urban Ministry's associate executive director, Liz Clasen-Kelly, described the changing pattern in those coming to her agency for help: "We're getting around 400 people per day now for the soup kitchen, which is a big increase. Overall, we're seeing more and more people living closer to the edge, folks needing help with food, people who've lost their house or apartment and now they're staying with friends, people who've lost their jobs and have more bills than they can deal with."
Are the recent additions to Urban Mininstry's "soup line" going hungry otherwise? Clasen-Kelly said, "What we see more often are people who have 'food insecurity,' that is, they don't know where their next meal is coming from, or some members of a family are skipping meals so others can eat, things like that. There's no doubt that more and more families are hurting. If you come here when school's out, you'll see plenty of school-age children, too. We've seen a serious increase in the numbers of children, just as we've seen big, big increases in the overall numbers since the economic downturn. Right now, we're seeing a 32-percent increase over this time in 2007."
We heard roughly the same tale from others who are on the front lines of staving off hunger in Charlotte. Kay Carter, the executive director of Second Harvest Food Bank of Metrolina, a regional organization that distributes food to soup kitchens, pantries and homeless shelters serving a 16-county area, believes that children are at the highest risk of going hungry, especially when they aren't in school and can't eat a free lunch.
"Since [the economic downturn], what we're finding more and more," said Carter, "is a tremendous increase in the number of people who have never had to ask for help before. That's a whole new group of people."
Beverly Howard, executive director of Loaves & Fishes in Charlotte said, "We hear all the time about people who are going hungry, often because they have to skip meals so their children can eat."
Howard has become very familiar with what Carter termed "a whole new group of people" who come to pick up food from Loaves & Fishes' 16 local pantries. She said, "Oh, yes, lots of new people. Requests for food have gone up 56 percent in the past two years, with most of that increase coming during the past year."
For Charlotte, the severe recession brought on a sudden uptick in hardship that has challenged the city's sense of community, and its vaunted commitment to helping out, more than at any time since the Great Depression.
By late last year, donations to agencies that help the poor, although they had increased, were lagging behind or barely keeping pace with the increased demand. In December 2008, the Foundation for the Carolinas launched the Critical Need Response Fund, starting with a $1 million gift from Charlotte philanthropists Sandra and Leon Levine. The Fund eventually raised and distributed $2.6 million to a variety of agencies and charities, including $325,000 to Loaves & Fishes, $250,000 to Second Harvest Food Bank, and $56,000 to the Urban Ministry Center.
Yet Charlotteans in danger of being hungry kept knocking on agency doors. As Beverly Howard explained, "The increased number of clients includes people who never thought they'd be the ones receiving help from any kind of organization."
People, it turns out, like Pamela Smith.