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Mobtown Beat

The Dry Season

With Donations Down, Soup Kitchens, Clinics Face Lean Times in Summer Months

By Afefe Tyehimba | Posted 8/8/2001

It's 8:30 on a weekday morning, chow time at Manna House. For the next two hours, almost 160 people will belly up, 25 at a time, to small tables in a makeshift dining hall where a metal cafeteria stand is loaded with piping-hot grits, raisin toast, hash browns, and boiled eggs.

But today, like every day for the past 28 years, this lower Charles Village soup kitchen is serving up more than just meals.

"Ms. Lil, you gotta Band-Aid?" asks Squeeze, an elfin man waving a badly scraped hand in front of Lillian Lowensen, a Manna House coordinator who mans the front door. Just as Squeeze appeals for first aid, Joe--a middle-aged drug addict with huge abscesses on both calves--slumps into a chair near the door and mewls pitifully for an ambulance. He soon hobbles off with two emergency medical technicians.

"We try to do everything we can for them [because] they depend on us, but sometimes I run out of the things they need," laments Esther Reaves, the center's executive director.

And now, early August, is one of those times. Four-fifths of Manna House's annual operating budget comes from private donations, and these get leaner as the weather gets warmer. Monthly cash donations have dwindled from $37,500 at the height of the holidays in December to $8,700 in June. That means Manna House clients get boiled eggs for protein rather than meat; they get toothpaste, but often no deodorant.

And it means Reaves has had to spend much of the summer scrambling to pull off an impromptu fund-raising campaign. Last month she sent a letter to 1,700 normally generous donors, appealing for them not to forget the soup kitchen as they vacation at the beach or chill over backyard grills. "Our clients do not have those same opportunities," she wrote. "That is why we need to be here year round for them."

Like Manna House, numerous area food banks and soup kitchens are facing warm-weather shortages--a challenge also faced by similar facilities nationwide. Recent studies by national anti-hunger organizations show cyclical blips in demand and supply. And while local providers are not sounding any alarm bells about cutting back hours or closing doors, they say they are struggling, as they do each year, to make it through Baltimore's sweltering months.

"There are lots of people who come in and drop off a bag from Safeway and don't even want us to take their name," says Rashida Raheim, director of emergency food programs for the Center for Poverty Solutions. "But the majority of people tend to forget about hunger in the summer because they're caught up in home-improvement projects or on vacation. But hunger never takes a vacation."

Perpetual hunger and material needs among the poor was the subject of two separate reports released this summer by Share Our Strength (SOS) and the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), both anti-hunger nonprofits based in Washington. After surveying 139 emergency food providers around the country, SOS found that 63 percent of food resources came from private donations--donations that reach their lowest levels during summer, most providers surveyed reported. At the same time, the clientele for summertime food programs here in Maryland is growing, due in part to the increasing number of children enrolled in summer school. According to FRAC, which crunched numbers on all states offering federally funded summer food programs to low-income children, Maryland saw an 11 percent spike in the number of children relying on free food--from 34,595 to 38,471--between July 1999 and July 2000. (Baltimore City figures were not available; nor were 2001 statistics.)

And locally, yet another recent study draws the connection between the crucial role played by so-called "safety-net providers" like Manna House and such times of heightened need. On July 30, the Baltimore-based Open Society Institute (OSI) released the findings of a study conducted by Johns Hopkins University medical students on the health-care and other service needs of some of the city's poorest residents. The researchers found that almost all of the 248 people who participated in the study--mostly African-American men--had chronic, often multiple illnesses and earned piteous wages, if any at all. More startling, however, was the fact that 75 percent of them were unable to identify alternative sites to go to for care and feeding should their free clinic or neighborhood soup kitchen or pantry close.

"That's why we worry about the safety-net providers and why it is absolutely crucial that [they] get attention," Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Peter Beilenson says. "It's hugely important that there's consistent support for local programs."

Tom O'Toole, a program officer at OSI and a Hopkins health-services researcher, is more pointed. "People need to know that these safety-net providers are doing more than just ladling out soup," he says. "They're keeping people alive."

Reaves and Lowensen, who have served 18 and 12 years at Manna House respectively, won't even hazard a guess at how many people they've helped--as the saying goes--"stay up." What they do know, and are quick to assert, is that their facility is "like home" to a lot of these people.

"We're the only people who talk to them, who are kind to them," Lowensen says. "They don't know what kindness is."

For Patricia, a Manna House regular who works three days a week cleaning offices, kindness on this particular summer day means leaving with a full stomach. After two hard-boiled eggs, two pieces of toast, and half a chocolate doughnut, she pats her stomach briefly and scoots away from the table to make room for one more. "What a lot of people don't realize," she says with a shrug, "is that if it wasn't for this place here, a lot of us wouldn't eat."

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