During the Great Depression, the homeless and down-and-out ended up living in shantytowns or tent cities. They were called Hoovervilles, after the president who lorded over the economic collapse, Herbert Hoover.

Certainly we’d never slip back to that reality. Right?

After all, we’re the living-large culture. Two TVs and three PCs in every home.

But at some point you begin to wonder … Manufacturing collapse. Housing collapse. Banking collapse.

Hmmm.

How far are we, really, from Bushvilles?

We may already be seeing the first ones.

But our modern version of a shantytown is much different than those from the last century. Hey, the average middle-class American couldn’t survive in a tent unless it had central air, a Wii and plasma TV. With remote.

Tents would never do.

The 21st century Bushvilles are full of the very symbol of American middle-class abundance: cars.

Tony Santa Barbara, Calif., has opened 12 car lots where the newly homeless can safely park at night. The lots are open from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. and are monitored by a homeless advocacy group to make sure they’re safe and secure.

“The way that the economy is going, it’s just amazing the people that are becoming homeless,” Nancy Kapp, a lot coordinator, told CNN. “It’s hit the middle class.”

Don’t fool yourself into thinking this is an only-in-California thing. We’re seeing the same middle-class migration to homelessness here.

“All of our beds are full and they’re not full of people you think of when you say, ‘homeless,'” said Sally Gress, spokeswoman with the Salvation Army in Broward. “One section of beds that were hardly ever full before was our section for single women. Now those beds are almost always full.”

They’re full of the working homeless. Secretaries and teachers. People getting salaries that no longer keep up with housing, insurance, food, utilities and gas.

“We offer rent and mortgage assistance,” Gress said. “And before, the calls were always for help with rent. Now, the calls are for mortgage assistance. And they’re coming from all over the place.”

And, of course, with tighter family budgets, there’s also been a drop in giving. In a report by Christian fundraising group Dunham and Co., 46 percent of Christian adults said they had reduced charitable contributions.

Even those at the higher end have been affected. Thirty-one percent of those making more than $100,000 said the economy was stifling their charity.

Another perfect storm in this season of economic hurricanes.

And we’re just beginning to feel the damaging storm surge.

“It’s just now starting to affect people with higher incomes,” Gress said. “It almost makes you think it could happen to just about anybody who loses a job.”

So now, more than ever, it’s time for those of us who aren’t living out of our car, or a cardboard box, to step it up.

And I’m not talking about handing your wallet to the alcoholic vagrant on the corner.

It’s about supporting already-established programs such as the Broward Coalition to End Homelessness and the Salvation Army in both Broward and Palm Beach counties.

You don’t have to be rich. Every Thursday morning this summer, my wife has been taking our kids to work at the Cooperative Feeding Program.

The kiddos complained at first, but have come to enjoy it. It didn’t hurt that they were allowed to dole out the desserts.

Besides, feeling a sense of purpose through service can be addictive.

Particularly when the people you’re helping don’t look so different from you.

Ralph De La Cruz can be reached at rdelacruz@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4727 and 561-243-6522.

PS – In case you are wondering –  no Cooperative Feeding did not know that one of our volunteer’s spouses was a Sun-Sentinel columnist.  He mentioned us all on his onsies….Sure is one small world……

Which world do you live in?

February 2, 2008

If you are like 60% of the world’s population you live in the 3rd world. On January 23rd Nova Southeastern University illustrated this by hosting their annual Hunger Banquet. Each guest drew a lot upon entering the banquet, held on campus at The Commons. Just like the real world, 60% of the guests sat on the floor, ate rice with their hands and had only water to drink. 25% were lucky enough to have chairs and basic utensils and were able to have beans with their rice portions. A very lucky few – 15% – had a full meal at a table set with proper plates and utensils. I think I even spied a little dessert there!

The weather that evening provided a great backdrop, as one of our famous tropical rainstorms provided a downpour that ended up dripping on those seated on the floor of the tent in the third world ~ another reminder of how lucky so very many of us are. Cooperative Feeding staff were on hand to provide information on the ongoing hunger right here in Broward County. One staff, Gwen Perry, even shared her personal and moving story of hunger. The floor was then opened for discussion about poverty, homelessness and hunger.

One interesting thing that came out of the evening was a comment by one of the group representing the third world. Seems that their fellow students seated at the first world table felt enough compassion to sneak them a few forks and paper plates, vastly improving their experience. An interesting parallel to the real world perhaps ~ when truly faced with the reality of hunger and poverty, most of us will act and the action does not have to be monumental to make a difference. A simple act of compassion, sharing your excess with those less fortunate, does effect change.

Today take this challenge. Just as the students opened their eyes and saw the need right in front of them, open yours. What do you see? Do you see the elderly gentleman who looks just a bit too thin? Maybe the grandmother who has taken in her grandchildren and only has social security? Or maybe you see the family with all of their possessions in the car because they have no place to live. Now look at your own life. What do you have that you can share? Food, clothing, household items, cash, or maybe time and talent? Just like the students at Nova, you don’t have to go far to share.

Help the Homeless Month Decree

On December 29, 2007 Governor, Charlie Crist declared January “Help the Homeless” month in Florida. Here’s 5 fast ways you can make a difference.

1. Clean out your closet. Can you imagine going to fill out applications and the only thing you have to wear is what you’ve been wearing for a few days? You may not wear those khakis, polos, and jeans any longer but they are the perfect thing for someone who is trying to get a job. Clean clothing – especially work wear, men’s clothes, socks and shoes are always in big demand. Drop them off at CFP and help someone get a job.

2. Open up your schedule. Come volunteer with us and bring your friends, co-workers and families. Volunteering isn’t just good for the cause, it’s good for you! Call Chris, our Volunteer Coordinator, at 954.792.2328 or e-mail him – chris@feedingbroward.org and find out about all the great opportunities there are. Think you’re too busy to come to our site? There are loads of ways you can help from home, your office or place of worship.

3. Get informed. Homelessness is a complicated issue, but there are answers. Jump on our website for information on how it affects our community. Click here to see some national stats and information.

4. Talk it up. Put all that good information gathering to use! In our society we often try to hide poverty and homelessness. Bring it out into the open by discussing the statistics, causes and possible solutions with your family, friends and people you meet. You may be surprised by people’s opinions or experiences.

5. Vote. It’s a bit early, but by starting today you can impact the next election. Find out where your legislators stand on the issue and what they are doing to help. Call and e-mail them with your comments on what you want to see done or not done. Ask them to sponsor legislation, back upcoming bills for positive change and get involved. Start an e-mail campaign and invite everyone you know to join in. The more your elected officials hear about an issue, the more they’ll know to take notice. By election day they should have a full plan of action to help those who are on the streets now and to prevent future generations from getting there.

They’re here…….doing all sorts of things. Things you should know about.

Teens are here leading. Yesterday The Cooperative Feeding Program posted appeals in several places for help to refill the pantry’s very empty shelves. Who was the very first person to jump in to action? Jenna Iden, a high school student at University School of Nova Southeastern. Yup, you read it right. The leader so far in this critical drive is too young to vote, run for office or miss curfew. She forwarded the info to loads of people, encouraged them to participate, and was the first person to donate through our online virtual food drive . Well done Jenna.

Teens are here caring. Today the Harold Reitman Unit of the Boys and Girls Club of Broward County came to help us hand out coats (yes, it even gets cold in Ft. Lauderdale) and spread a little cheer during the grey, chilly morning. The coats came primarily from 2 sources; The Good Morning America/Burlington Coat Factory coat drive through One Warm Coat and the teens’ own coat drive. They came. They gave. They cheered. This isn’t the first time either. We’ve been very privileged to have them with us before. In fact they were just here on Christmas Day handing out hygiene kits and shirts. Imagine that. A bunch of teenagers giving up their Christmas morning and doing so fully equipped with big smiles, cheerful faces and a happy to be here attitude. We can’t wait to have them back here again.

The teens are here. Not just here as in a physical location. They’re here – leading, caring, helping to shape a more just and sustainable future. They are here helping in the pantry, serving on the line, taking a turn at the front desk, even sorting mail. They’re here at their schools, their clubs and homes.

The teens are here. Where are you?

It’s also for plenty, which is what we don’t have right now. The holidays are over, but hunger isn’t. In 2 months The Cooperative Feeding Program moved over 210,000 pounds of food, which is over 6000 emergency boxes. It’s a fantastic thing to be able to put such a basic necessity of life into so many hands, but all the hard work has left our shelves empty and warehouse depleted. I know, it’s a bit depressing, but around here there is no time for depressing! We’ve pulled on our bootstraps, circled the wagons and are sending out the word – Virtual Food Drives now!  Here’s how you can participate in the drive and restock those shelves.

1. Jump on our website and click on the virtual food drive link (it’s on the left). You’ll be redirected to our secure server where you can shop in our virtual grocery store.

2. Go to our Firstgiving page and do a personal fundraising campaign. You can do it all on your onsies or challenge your friends to a fundraising duel.

3. If you’re a local, shake down your cupboards, your mom’s kitchen (with her permission of course), your friends’ pantries (you should ask them first too), anywhere some non-perishable food might be hiding out and bring it on over. We’ll be sure it goes to a good home.

4. Pass it on. Forward this blog to all of your contacts. You never know who just might have 6 or 7 pallets of peanut butter lying about waiting for us to come get!

Wheee Doggies!

January 2, 2008

Well campers it’s been very busy here at The Cooperative Feeding Program. In November alone we served 11,750 meals and gave out over 3,300 food boxes. Needless to say we were a bit busy. Our web updates, (including our e-newsletter) have been a bit sporadic lately. So, in order to be sure we tell you all the great things going on, thank as many wonderful people as possible, and keep you up to date on hunger, homelessness and social justice issues I’ll be updating the blog, Facebook and MySpace quite often. Get ready!Each update will be fairly short, so if you don’t see yourself, group, or question addressed,wait a bit and see if it doesn’t show up soon. Of course, you can always drop me a note if you think we missed you or someone else. As always feel free to e-mail me (maureen@feedingbroward.org) any pics, videos, or info on your volunteer group activities for The Cooperative Feeding Program.

Oh and you social networking volunteers? I haven’t forgotten you. In fact I’m probably calling you right now…….

Best of all things good and sustainable in 2008!

Spam hurts

November 27, 2007

It really does, especially a few cases of it in a crate wielded by Jillian, Cooperative Feeding’s Deputy Director, as she collides with you on her way to fill the pantry shelves. Of course the Spam in question is the real world, potted meat kind and we’ve gone through an amazing amount of it this month. Just to give you an idea…between November 1st and the time we went home on November 21st (the day before Thanksgiving) we gave out over 2900 food boxes. Usually in that same number of days about 1800 boxes would be given out. How did we do it all? One word (no, not Spam) – volunteers.

The week of Thanksgiving volunteers from all over were doing food drives, receiving and sorting food donations, packing food boxes, working in the kitchen, making hygiene kits, rolling forks, stuffing envelopes and a whole host of other things. University School of Nova Southeastern University, Northeastern High’s Spanish Club, Doric Masonic Lodge #140, BCC Sociology, Archbishop McCarthy High School, E Sciences Inc., Representative Ron Klein and staff, Interact Club, Ramat Shalom Synagogue and Marlow, Connell, Valerius, Abrams, Adler, Newman & Lewis were all here along with many others.

On Thanksgiving Day, 100 Target volunteers gave up their day off to run the festivities here. They did everything from cooking and serving in the kitchen to cleaning and sorting in the pantry. They also provided a very generous donation to offset the expenses of the day and handed out hygiene kits and supplies. The Sun-Sentinel included them in a Thanksgiving story you can read here.

Our volunteers are amazing. So amazing in fact that last year they accounted for more than 40% of the labor needed to operate Cooperative Feeding. That’s not just Thanksgiving time, that’s 365 days a year. If you weren’t able to be with us last week, what are you doing tomorrow, next month or the middle of July? Our volunteers are here then too. Maybe you can be one of them. Watch out for flying Spam though. It really does hurt and I have the bruises to prove it.