Friday, November 21, 2014

Identifying Community Needs

We in Middle Class America know what the problems in the "less fortunate" communities are, and we are here to solve them. OK... maybe that's not fair. Let's talk about what I REALLY know about. So let me start over. We in Middle Class Birmingham know what the problems are over in West End, or Woodlawn, or Elyton, and we are here to solve them.

Siimple enough. OK, what are the problems in West End and Elyton? Well,  obviously one of the main problems is hunger. Just look at all the people begging for money for food. Many of them "Will work for food"... until someone offers to let him mow their yard, or clean their house, in exchange for lunch or supper. OK... bad example. Everyone was on to that. The signs have changed. Now it's "Disabled Vet. Need help." Except when you ask them what branch they were in or what their MOS was. They get a blank look and say, "I don't remember." Or try to give them a list of V. A. agencies who provide everything to veterans from food to shelter to healthcare to wheelchair vans, they hand it back and ask, "Can you spare a few bucks?" Another bad example... How about those pitiful panhandlers in the church parking lot telling the little old ladies they're hungry, but get really agitated when the ladies invite them inside the church for sandwiches and coffee? Or those in the grocery store parking lot asking for food money until they can "get back home" but refuse to come into the store and let you buy them groceries? 

A homeless man I talked with in Avondale Park said, "If anyone in Birmingham is hungry, it's their own fault. There are at least a hundred places that hand out free food or meals every day." 

While I'm sure a hundred is an exaggeration, there are 4 places/churches within 2 miles of Avondale Park that daily prepare hot noon meals for the homeless. Two of those also prepare evening meals, and two churches in the area hand out bags of groceries every week. 

One resident of a veterans' home in the area told me that they get more food donated than they can eat, only mostly it's fruit, cookies and bread. He said they don't get many donations of meat and vegetables. He said when he gets his check he heads for a local diner for "meatloaf and beans. Don't get that donated." Then he heads to Piggly Wiggly for tuna and "vi-eeners".

Well, if it's not hunger, must be healthcare. We all watch the news, and know that the underpriviledged don't have access to healthcare. Lots of people agree on that, because last October there were 3 huge health fairs in the Avondale community within 2 weeks of each other. All three were sparcely attended. Why? Well two of the health fair sponsors said it was due to "poor communication". If people had known, they would have come in droves. But one of these advertised on the radio, on TV, and had posters all over Avondale. Another did the poster thing, but also advertised heavily to their Brown Bag Grocery recipients for a month beforehand. (Further proof of healthcare needs is the two free health clinics in Avondale and Woodlawn.)

So where were the people who need healthcare? Several people told me "I get a free flu shot at my doctor. He also takes my blood pressure. Didn't need a health fair." WHAT?? How do you afford the doctor? "Medicaid pays." If you don't have Medicaid or Medicare, you can go to one of the free clinics, or if you just need your blood pressure taken, stop by the fire department. The homeless in Avondale Park mostly go to M-Power's free clinic, because they also get free medication there, as do the homeless in Woodlawn.

Well, I guess the homeless need shelter? Back to the park. Asking the people who live in the pavillion and sleep on the picnic tables if they would like a ride to the Firehouse Shelter, or to the J.H. or another mission that houses and feeds people. "No thanks, Ms. Ginger." But... but... but... why not? "Can't drink at the mission, and have to pray every day. Have to clean your room and be in by ten at the Firehouse. Have to look for a job too.  I don't need all that hassle."

So how do we identify what the needs are? We could ask the charities, run by the middle class,  who serve the population. I suspect If we asked CSM, they would say the biggest need is food. It's what they do. If we ask M-Power, they would say healthcare. It's what they do. (M-Power also has some awesome job training programs, which they have identified as a need in the community). If we ask the Jimmy Hale Mission, they would tell us it's shelter and alcohol rehab. It's what they do. 

But I don't mean to direct this rant to the homeless. There are multitudes of ramshackle houses in all those areas, in which families live ... well, reside. While my house is small and needs work, it is in a neighborhood that has never seen a drive-by shooting. There has never been a robbery at our 7-11. Children safely ride their bikes all around the block. I don't personally know all my neighbors, but I know most of them, and all of them by sight, or by their cars. 

I do know that not one of them is chronically hungry. None of them is homeless, and none of them lives in a drafty house in Avondale with iffy heat or drafty fire-hazard fireplaces, no a.c., with roaches running rampant. None them prays nightly that somehow God will provide their child a coat for the winter, or help them find a way to pay the power bill this month. Not one of us in my middle class neighborhood is homebound because we can't drive, or can't afford a car, or because our children and other relatives have died or forsaken us, or moved to California, so we see nobody except whoever appears on our TV screen - IF we have a TV. 

As for you: I would bet not a single one of you actually goes a day, much less a week or a month, without your phone ringing. SOMEBODY thinks about you every day, and SOMEBODY calls to tell you. 

When you look at "those people's" situation, it's easy to identify the problems from a middle-class viewpoint. "Good grief! You can't pay your power bill. How do you think you can feed that DOG??" "If he abuses you, leave him." "If you're sick, go to the doctor. "If you would spend your money on food instead of beer, maybe you wouldn't be hungry." "Clean up this mess. Get rid of that cat. You can't even afford kitty litter!" 

So it sounds like the main problem is just that "those people" make bad choices. Maybe they do. 

But maybe, just MAYBE, the problem is loneliness. Maybe people need companionship more than they need food, or shelter, or healthcare, or even their dignity. And maybe, for some people, the only friend that never deserts, is there every day, and comforts the most, lives in a bottle.

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