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Thursday, January 03, 2008

From the Trenches: the Palanca Food Pantry.

by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

The holidays were unusually busy at the Palanca Food Pantry here in little Lake Worth, Florida. Our crowds are up about 50% this year and resources are stressed but the response of our partners and the community at large has been gratifyingly up to the task thus far. On balance, we are able to meet the additional demand.

The communities we serve — the homeless, persons on fixed income (retirement and disability), and the working poor — are particularly vulnerable to economic fluctuations. In this area the homeless and working poor depend heavily upon housing construction for their limited earnings, the homeless through temporary, largely minimum-wage “labor halls” and the working poor through (or as) small sub-subcontractors.

Clients who have managed to avoid homelessness for years, if not decades, in ramshackle trailers, in run down trailer parks, are now living in their cars, catching a few harried hours of sleep wherever they can. The trailers they occupied now house those who used to be able to afford run down apartments. Increasing numbers of those apartments and trailers now have no electricity, the utility bills not having been paid. Increasing numbers of those cars have no insurance. They are driven sparingly as gas costs above $3.00 per gallon and there is generally no money available for repairs.

The guys who hang out at the exits from the Home Depot parking lot, just around the corner from here, waiting for contractors who might stop on the way out to hire their services for a day, are not having much luck just now. They know the pantry’s feeding schedule and often must be satisfied to have one good meal for their efforts. They generally sleep together in large numbers in crumbling trailers that no one else will rent.

Most major intersections in town feature four panhandlers, one on each of the four corners. There are only a tiny number of shelter beds available in the county and those are nearly 10 miles away in downtown West Palm Beach. The nearby Westgate Tabernacle has been the de facto shelter for the area for years now but they have been cited by the county, as part of a real estate battle, for operating a shelter without a license. The Tabernacle lost its court case. The back fines are enormous and another $20,000, or more, may be required in order to pursue an appeal. It will likely close soon.

While the safety net that was once available to our clientele is in tatters after a decade of reduced funding for the poor and disabled, the banking sector, rocked by its own poor decision making, has a strong ally in its government. The safety net available to the major market players, that is to say, grows more impressive with each passing year. This clearly constitutes an ongoing policy.

While the U.S. equity markets have been taking losses, it’s true, there is little likelihood that they will crash. The Federal Reserve is infusing hundreds of billions of dollars into the credit markets via special auctions. January 2008 having begun with a succession of daily stock market losses, the Fed Chairman, Ben Bernanke, preemptively promised another interest rate cut just today. According to the Associated Press:

Wall Street was buoyed by Bernanke's words. The Dow Jones jumped 117.78 points to close at 12,853.09.

Foreign central banks are coordinating the effort to limit the damage to investors from the subprime mortgage crisis and cyclical downturn of world markets. Our market safety nets have been strengthen on a par with our fierce weaponry over the past three decades. Who could possibly argue against preventing economic downturns?

But the effects of yet another investor bubble, which, of course, greatly enriched those who got in and out on time, will have to be felt somewhere. That somewhere is at food pantries, such as Palanca, among the people represented by the recent .3% up tick in unemployment, and among those who have disappeared from our statistical radar altogether and appeared on our street corners and at the exits from Home Depot parking lots. Among those just one economic level above, it will be felt by way of lower quality housing, damaged credit ratings, the further loss of access to government programs that will come with the inevitable tax cut attendant upon a “stimulus package,” the loss of basic healthcare, and more.

This article first appeared, in early January, 2008, in the Talking Points Memo Café but was lost due to technical problems during a changeover of servers at that site.

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