Poor don’t always look the part

Brian Andrasak

Many people believe that most of the United States’ poor live in inner-city neighborhoods.

In reality, just more than 42 percent live in urban areas and only 25 percent live in the inner-city.

That leaves 48 percent trying to make ends meet in the suburbs or outside of metropolitan areas.

In Kent, the people who make up organizations like the County Clothing Center, Kent Social Services, Habitat for Humanity and Help Me Grow paint a much different picture of the impoverished from that persistent image of the city beggar.

These groups see a mother struggling with a low-paying job, trying to put food in front of her kids and keep whatever roof she may have from leaking too badly. They meet a middle-aged man whose employer has just cut his hours in half, or worse, laid him off completely. These havens for the low-income and temporarily no-income individuals or families know that the poor don’t always look the part, but need help just as much.

“We have a lot of working poor, but with minimum wage jobs,” said Debbi Missimi, director of Food Services for Family and Community Services of Kent. “With the cost of everything rising, including gas and utilities, they just cannot function and make it on their salaries.”

The food pantry, which Missimi oversees, doles out 85 to 100 meals daily, while providing groceries for 25 to 30 families daily.

“They are folks that are unemployed, homeless, one parent families, men with kids, women with kids or older people on fixed incomes,” Missimi said.

Historically, this time of year finds pantries and clothing centers working the hardest, with the exception of the holidays. Missimi described the shelves at the pantry as “very bare” due to kids having spent the past few months at home on summer vacation, which in turn meant parents having to provide meals all day long.

“We have never turned anyone away,” Missimi said. “We help everyone that comes to us. What we are facing right now is very low donations.”

The County Clothing Center, on Route 59 in Ravenna, also sees an increase in demand at about this time.

“August is always a big month because of back to school. People need clothes for their kids,” said Kathy Hardy, President of the Advisory Board at the County Clothing Center.

The County Clothing Center has between 300 and 400 volunteers that work at various times throughout the year. In August, 391 volunteers handed out 22,435 pounds of clothing to 4,310 customers.

Help Me Grow, a home-based service for parents of children aged birth to three years old and pregnant women, does not use volunteers, but instead employs six service coordinators who each can work with up to 45 children, or approximately 30 families, at a given time.

“We help to insure that kids have the best possible start and are prepared for school and life-long learning,” said Service Coordinator Becki Walter.

Services such as new baby and mother checkups, child screening for health and development, referrals to other services and parent support and group activities are available, most often free of charge.

The city of Kent’s own Community Development Department also has a hand in making people’s lives a bit easier when it comes to working through economically trying times.

“We have some different programs that are all not necessarily limited to people in poverty,” said Gary Locke, plans administrator for the city of Kent’s Community Development Department. “They are basically geared toward people identified as low or moderate income.”

Low income is considered to be income at or below 80 percent of the median income. According to the 2000 Census, Kent’s median income was $29,582 per household.

Kent is considered an entitlement community under the federal Community Development Block program. This means Kent is awarded grants by the federal government in order to carry out a wide range of community development activities including neighborhood revitalization and economic development. Communities with these grants are required to give the most attention to low and moderate income people. The idea is to create situations where individuals with low or moderate incomes can purchase homes or even start businesses.

“We allocate funds each year to the Kent Business Alliance. They provide technical advice to people who want to start a business. Low income people can get this service free of charge,” Locke said. “We have some companies and businesses that have started as a result of that, where the owner qualified as low income.”

Kent State University’s student chapter of Habitat for Humanity also has success stories, including the rehabilitation of a Kent house on Oak Street completed Sept. 10. A family is scheduled to move into the house by the end of this month.

Liz Roberts, KSU affiliate liaison to the Portage County affiliate, said approximately 50 students from the university currently volunteer with Habitat.

“We build year round. Three houses per year is the goal of the Portage County affiliate,” Roberts said. “If it’s really cold we might work indoors. I’ve been on sites where it was freezing and we were tearing off siding from the house.”

Habitat’s next site will be in Ravenna, where they will begin rehabbing another home on Sept. 24.

The goal of all of these different centers, shelters and programs is to help individuals and families through the toughest of financial times, so that they can become productive and independent members of the community once again. And for those receiving help, the experience of struggling for the barest of essentials provides a new perspective.

“Several of our clients lose their jobs, and then come to us for the first time,” Missimi said. “Once they get on their feet and are stable, there are many times that they come in and donate to us or volunteer.”

Contact public affairs reporter Brian Andrasak at [email protected].