I live in a very poor area. Most of the people around me are of an age where we would expect them to be retired, and many others are living on disability payments after years of working in the lumber industry. It’s an area of small houses, low rent apartments, and lots of social service assistance.
Fourteen months ago at Christmas we were a bit low on cash, and decided to use one of the social service supports that are available for Christmas presents for children in low income families.
To do so, I had to do the following:
On one day, I had to drive in my car about a mile from the nearest bus stop, park, find an unmarked pop up canopy on the roadside, and pick up a numbered ticket. Based on the number on the ticket, the worker told me approximately what time my number group would be called to be helped. I was glad for my good sneakers as I paced back and forth hunting for the location of that canopy.
The day of the giveaway, I had to drive my car that same mile from the nearest bus stop, and another half mile before finding an empty parking space. I don’t own rain boots, so instead of hiking through the field in a direct line to where I needed to be, I walked the long way around on the sidewalk. I found my number group about three blocks from the front of the line – we were not going to be called anywhere near the time we had all been told. No chairs or windbreaks in this line that stretched approximately a quarter mile long. While my shoes were good, they were not intended to be worn in cold weather for an extended amount of time. I wished I had warmer socks.
After a while it got colder, and I had to put my coat on over my sweatshirt. Once the sun went down it got colder. I layered up with the earmuffs and scarves I had brought as the line inched slowly forward. The wind began to blow and I wished my coat had a higher collar.
My fingers got numb from holding the folder of papers I would need to show to prove I had custody of the children for whom I was requesting presents. I wished I had gloves. I own work gloves, but it didn’t occur to me to bring them. Most of the others in line had warm-looking knit gloves. I eventually put the folder between my coat and sweatshirt, and warmed my fingers in my waistband.
Three hours after my group’s expected call time, we were finally moved forward into the building, a 4 minute walk from the line’s staging area. What a relief for my hands and feet to be inside! I showed my paperwork, which was all in order, and I was assigned a volunteer who walked me through the process and made sure I received wonderful items that were just right.
Then I exited the building with my bag of gifts, and walked the four minutes back to the line, which still stretched a long distance into the night. I wondered how many of them had warm socks, gloves, and a coat with a high enough collar to block out the wind. For the truly poor, such things may be a luxury. But in order to get access to this particular Christmas charity, such things were important and borderline necessary, because it only got colder as the winter evening wore on. This isn’t a dig at the charity, if anything it is a commentary on just how much charity like this is needed because of the sheer number of folks who need its help. And with that large number of people, there certainly wasn’t anywhere inside that so many people could wait. It quite probably outnumbered the seating area in the neighborhood high school’s gymnasium.
As I trudged the 10 minute walk back to my car (walking the long way around on the sidewalk to avoid the marshy open field, because I don’t own rain boots, remember?) I also wondered at the number of people who wanted to access this charity, but could not because of mobility issues. A motorized wheelchair could have made the trip, but an elderly person using a walker? Probably not.
By the time I reached my car, my hands and feet were numb again. I placed my bag on the floor, and gratefully warmed my extremities in the heater before setting off for home. I was grateful for my car as I thought of the people there who probably had to walk another mile to get to the bus station to get home. I hope they could afford warmer clothing than I had. I learned that night that there is a cost to being poor, and it often comes in unexpected ways, like a wardrobe warm enough to wait outside in long lines before you can receive charity.