How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

Mission Possible: How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

The Best of Times? The View from the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen

By Peter Wise

From my vantage point as Director of the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK), I am witnessing first hand what I think is a startling phenomena, one which clearly deserves the title, “The Best of Times, The Worst of Times”. Here we are, as a nation and region, entering our 10th year of sustained economic growth with an unemployment rate in Mercer County at an unprecedented low of 3%. Add to this the reduction of the welfare rolls by some 55% over the last three years and the excitement of the robust Route 1 business corridor, and I think you would agree we are indeed experiencing the best of times.

However, the startling reality is that TASK is seeing longer lines and a greater level of desperation than we have ever seen before. Only four months ago we added a second night of meal service and are now planning a third night just to try to keep up with the demand for emergency food. Whereas we served approximately 100,000 meals in 1999, this year, with five hot lunches and three dinners per week, I anticipate that we will be serving approximately 120,000 meals by the end of 2000. What is going on? How can this be in this best of times? Why haven’t the growth of our economy and the much-touted Welfare to Work Program resulted in reductions of people coming to a place called a soup kitchen?

An attempt at answering these perplexing questions may be made by describing the attributes of those who come to the soup kitchen. We serve the elderly who have not had the good fortune to have worked at jobs that provided pensions and whose Social Security payments do not provide a sustainable income. We serve the mentally ill, who are often seen wandering the streets of downtown Trenton. We serve those who have become addicted to drugs and/or alcohol. Although psychologists and physicians alike label these addictions as illnesses, as a society we still treat addicts as criminals. We serve the physically and mentally challenged. We see people come to TASK in wheel chairs, on crutches, and straight from the hospital with their wristbands still securely in place. We serve those who suffer from personality disorders, who have been victims of life trauma, who often have a profound lack of communication and social skills. We serve those who have been cheated out of a decent education, adults who can’t read or write (the adult functional illiteracy rate in the city of Trenton is 39%!). We serve the homeless, those staying at the Rescue Mission overnight shelter and those living in abandoned buildings and vehicles.

I have saved the most difficult for last – the children. We serve families with children. We also serve children whose families don’t really deserve the name family. We have one woman who comes to TASK with about 20 kids in tow – sort of a Mother Hubberd, if you will. What is she doing? She is bringing children she has collected from her neighborhood – children from families who don’t deserve the name family. Indeed, as most of the world is now contemplating vacation plans and the lazy, hazy days of summer, the soup kitchen is experiencing its busiest time. Why? Because the kids are not in school where over 85%! of Trenton’s children qualify for subsidized lunch. On a typical day we will serve over 50 children at lunch. Last summer we peaked at 80 kids in one day. What kind of world are we living in when children must come to a soup kitchen for their nourishment?

The most distressing part of this for me is that I see the next generation being raised in circumstances that almost guarantee that they will join the ranks of their parents and grandparents in line at the soup kitchen. And I think there is probably a very real relationship between the prosperity of the larger community and the rate at which the gap between the haves and the have-nots is growing. Economists credit the digital information age, the growth of the Internet and e-commerce as fueling the productivity engine that drives our economy. But the children coming to the soup kitchen are oftentimes from homes that don’t even have a telephone, much less a computer. How can children growing up with three families living in a one-bedroom apartment be expected to keep pace with their suburban counterparts? Schooling and achievement testing is competitive enough as it is. Sometimes it seems that the children we serve at TASK have insurmountable hurdles to overcome.

Actually, there is another significant category of people who come to the soup kitchen – the working poor. I see them coming to TASK every day, with their hands and clothing covered with paint or spackle, sometimes with tool belts around their waists. How frustrating it must be to have to come to a soup kitchen in the middle of your workday to get enough nourishment to be able to continue through the afternoon! The reality is that the minimum wage in our home state is $5.15 per hour. That is the mandated Federal minimum. States may choose to go higher than that, but dare not go lower. New Jersey, the second wealthiest state in the Union with a cost of living to match, has decided to be at the very minimum. If a minimum wage job were full time and year round (most are neither), annual income is $10,000. The cost of renting a one bedroom apartment in the city of Trenton is about $550 per month. If you do the debt to income analysis to determine what income you should be earning to pay that rent, you find that you should be earning about $23,000 per year or approximately $12 per hour. So even if, by working your way up above the minimum wage, you earn $7 or $8 per hour, you are still woefully short of the $12 per hour needed to be self-sufficient.

On June 27 at the New Jersey State Auditorium, I attended an informative, but disturbing presentation given by Legal Services of New Jersey (LSNJ), a publicly funded agency which studies the phenomena of poverty in our home state. The data presented clearly show how many of those who are removed from assistance sink into poverty. And what makes this situation even more alarming is the fact that Work First New Jersey, our state’s version of Welfare to Work reform, includes a five year lifetime limit on receiving benefits. That means for many the fast approaching year of 2002 will be the year that their government abandons them. I thought our government had primary responsibility for the common good, the public welfare, the provision of social services for those who need help. The reality is that the vast majority of those who were on the welfare rolls who could obtain jobs, already have; those remaining on the rolls are those with so-called multiple barriers. These include the so-called MICA dual diagnosis patients (mentally impaired and chemically addicted), people suffering from emotional depression, personality disorders, lack of education, etc.

The point is that Work First New Jersey is just what it says – an attempt to accelerate getting people off the welfare rolls and into a job. Up to now we have not been focussed on the higher goal of eliminating poverty – just get a job. The irony is that poverty and suffering may actually be increasing as a result. As I stated in the beginning of this piece, the lines at the soup kitchen are getting longer and many of the people being extracted from public assistance are literally going off the screen. The state, Mercer County and LSNJ have all publicly acknowledged that they are stymied by the challenge of intercepting these societal dropouts. My response is - come to the soup kitchen and see for yourselves those who have been left behind by Work First New Jersey.

One of the strongest debates in this election year is “What do we do with all this surplus money that’s accumulating in our treasuries?” Our state of New Jersey is awash in money – from the unspent Welfare to Work funds (pegged by the Feds at a constant 1997 level), from the incoming tobacco money and the torrential flow of income taxes from our superheated economy. I have some suggestions: (1) Hire, train and deploy certified Social Workers for intensive case management. (2) Create a building trades job corps that will aggressively renovate the wonderful, but threatened, housing stock in the city. (3) Create and assign New Jersey State Section 8 rental vouchers to those renovated units. (4) Make it easy for addicts to get into long term (six months minimum), residential, away from the neighborhood rehab centers. Provide job training, support groups, basic education in parallel with rehab. Be prepared to address relapse.

The LSNJ report also identifies a prevalent insanity in our social support system – that of the absurd caseloads of the county caseworkers. In some counties the report finds caseloads greater than 200. That is the priority that our state places on funding this critical relationship. As reported in the Times on June 28, the spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services, Jacqueline Tencza, says that the state has increased caseworker funding from $13 million in 1997 to $20 million this year. That would not result in even a halving of these caseloads. Is that considered an adequate response? I think not. Ms. Tencza also speaks to the concern of caseworker training and brags that a “one-day seminar” has been added! Is this considered an adequate response to caseworkers who are dealing with people who have a lifetime of problems keeping them from moving forward? I think not. She also speaks of “pilot programs” being started. Pilot programs are good at the beginning of an effort, but we are now more than half way to the end of the line for many on assistance. Also, with the countdown continuing, Ms. Tencza said that the state is not ready to begin to assess how many clients may be deemed chronically unemployable. In what is perhaps the most alarming admission by this spokesperson for the agency charged with providing social services, Ms. Tencza says, “ We want to spend one more year of tailored services for folks before we start giving up.” GIVING UP?! How dare the Department of Human Services speak about giving up on our less fortunate citizens in this, one of the wealthiest states in the Union!

Why is New Jersey not following the lead of other states that are successfully negotiating the sea changes needed in our attitudes and policies – states like Minnesota and Illinois. These states are not fixated on the brute force reduction of the Welfare Rolls but rather, are fixated on alleviating poverty. In Minnesota’s case, this took the form of continuing partial benefits to poor parents who had gotten jobs. In Illinois, what it took was the assignment of intensive case management social workers who were not narrowly channeled by their specific agency charters, but rather were able to serve client needs on a more holistic basis, because that’s the way life is – not compartmentalized, but in your face, all at once.

LSNJ ended its report by concluding that the state must do much more in delivering services before it begins to cut off clients for good.
Unfortunately, what the state seems to be doing is blaming the poor for being poor. Their definition of success seems to be a person with a job but still in poverty. They don’t know how to help the poor soul who comes to the soup kitchen wearing four sweatshirts in the middle of a hot summer day and just can’t figure out what to do with all that extra money lying around in the treasury. Proposals emanating from the state in its continuing devolution of social socials to the nonprofit and faith-based sectors continue the drum beat – get a job, get a job.

The city of Trenton is at the cusp of reinventing itself, of trying to reverse the depopulation that it has experienced over the last 30 years and be again an inviting place to live and work and enjoy leisure. Now is a critical time. We have the money; do we have the political will? If not now, when? The city of Trenton ought to be a shining city on a hill, or at least on the banks of the Delaware. It was once a proud industrial center, is still the county seat of Mercer and the state capital. But Trenton cannot be a shining city as long as we have at its heart over 2000 people a week coming to a soup kitchen. The other day, as I got into my car parked on Escher Street in front of TASK, I noticed that I could see the proud golden dome of our state’s capitol building. I wonder if those who inhabit that building can see us at the soup kitchen.