In every city, there are some neighborhoods that are better off than others. It's usually a matter of politics that determines the future of those areas that struggle, a careful combination of public assistance, taking care of one's own needs, and a community working together toward a common goal.
Tom Allio has been tracking poverty throughout northeast Ohio for years. He's the Executive Director of the Catholic Commission of Summit County and the Social Action Director of the Diocese of Cleveland:
Allio: It's not on the agenda of our national government. It's not on the agenda significantly of the candidates running for governor, and it is not a priority as it should be for local public officials at the city or the county level.
Roughly 17 percent of Ohioans qualify as impoverished as defined by federal guidelines. In Cleveland, which leads the nation's big cities in poverty, that number is approximately 32 percent. And in Akron, roughly 30 percent of its residents are at or below the poverty level. That's why, says Allio, the role of catholic charities is so crucial to the region:
We're the incubator, and what we do in community development is basically we try to bring broad sectors of people together of the best of our community. And we look at what the unmet needs are, particularly as it affects low income families and the individuals, because our work in social justice is particularly to identify ourselves with the poorest and the most vulnerable.
Many of the poorest and most vulnerable live here, on the Southside of Akron. It's the third Friday of the month and what you're hearing are the food pantry trucks pulling up to the doors of Open M, a non-profit neighborhood based ministry serving Akron's poorest of the poor. Today, the line of those waiting for groceries from Open M's Mountain of Food program stretches through the parking lot and out to the sidewalk of Princeton Street.
Inside the doors of Open M's gymnasium style set-up, tables line the walls, each stacked with everything from apples to potato chips to mouthwash to laundry detergent. Volunteers load the brown and white shopping bags to hand out to the line that now snakes in a very orderly fashion throughout the building. One of those waiting in line is Margaret Riddle, standing 5 foot 3, in black shorts, a red oversized shirt, no teeth but wearing a very gentile smile:
Riddle: A lot of times, I can't get food and stuff and this helps me and I go wherever else I can....I got all kind of problems. I got MS. I've had it for 30 years. I got high blood pressure. You name it I got it.
Margaret not only takes advantage of the food being distributed today, she is also a patient of the Free Clinic that Open M offers in the same building and is taking classes at Open M's library. Dottie Achmoody is Open M's Chief Executive Officer:
Achmoody: The mountain of food we've been doing, I think, for a couple of years. But in terms of Open M and us being here, it's been since 1968 we've been serving the community in one way or another. And we have other things within our food pantry. We give emergency food assistance and then we also do hot meals. We also serve hot meals the last two weeks of each month....
Anyone can show up for the meals, and very little is asked to prove eligibility. However, Bobbie Boyer, Open M's food service manager, says everyone does need to sign in when arrive:
Boyer: Before last month, we had over 800 names in the computer, I put all of this in the computer, and of that 800, only 130...140 had come before and signed up...were repeats. We had over 120 new people. So, I have over 900 names in the computer right now...
While Open M and its team of volunteers feed, provide medical services and day care for the neighborhood's poor, another faith-based organization around the corner in Akron's Summit Lake neighborhood works to keep kids off the streets. Mike Starks is the Community Organizer for the Summit Lake Neighborhood Association. He's a former heroin addict and is now a lay minister for at-risk youths:
Starks: I was born here, but I wasn't raised here. But I come back here because I feel the call in my heart to try and do something to help the people in the community. It's a good community, but over a period of time, as a result of being overlooked by the city planners and developers, and no form of economic development coming into this area, I believe, and I could be wrong, but my perspective is that there's developed somewhat a sense off apathy in the community.
Open M and the Summit Lake Neighborhood Association work together to provide for the area's needs. Each also works with Pastor Duane Crabbs, of South Street Ministries. Saving lives is nothing new for Reverend Crabbs. He spent 13 years as a firefighter with the cities of Cuyahoga Falls and Akron. He was ordained in 1997 and refers to his ministry as a "church without walls.":
Crabbs: Not too long ago when I was at this one bar, I go into a bar, and when I come in they know right away to serve me coffee and it's a biker bar and there's a few iron workers there and when I got ready to leave, the barmaid she had one of those remote controls to turn off the juke box and there were a few people talking so she told everyone 'alright everyone, shut the hell up, the preacher's getting ready to leave, I want him to pray for this place.'
It's the kind of work that Reverend Crabbs has been doing since he moved into this neighborhood 10 years ago. He and his family bought a home that was about to be condemned and demolished and turned it into a place where worship takes place and kids have a meaningful place to hang out.
On his property, there's a building that houses a weight room for the older kids, and a bike shop for the younger ones.
Old, beaten up bikes are donated to Reverend Crabbs. In turn, the kids who would otherwise find themselves hanging out on the streets, come here to repair and customize the bikes and then keep them. Reverend Crabbs compares his program to Habitat for Humanity, but on a smaller scale for children.
A few years ago, President Bush allowed federal funds to be allocated to faith-based organizations, testing the notion of the separation of church and state. However, Catholic Charities had already been receiving some federal grants, and Open M, South Street Ministries and the Summit Lake Neighborhood Association are operating mostly on community donations and volunteerism. Without it, neighborhoods like those found on Akron's south side would be lost, perhaps both literally and spiritually.
Crabbs: Ronald Reagan once quipped, we fought the war on poverty and poverty won. But I kind of prefer what G.K. Chesterton once said Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, it's been found difficult and left untried. And I really think an honest war on poverty has not happened and for it to happen, it requires first of all the involvement of the poor in partnership with the community of resource.
I'm Dave Pignanelli, 89.7 WKSU.
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