Poverty waits in long, cold lines


I am a board member of the Greater Cleveland Food Bank and earlier this year I was saddened to learn of the passing of Dan Rourke, a client health specialist with the Food Bank’s Help Center. He was one of the guiding spirits of the Help Center and helped connect thousands of Food Bank clients with needed help and assistance. At a board meeting Kristin Warzocha shared this essay that Dan wrote called Poverty Waits in Long, Cold Lines. I thought it was important to share as the Ohio General Assembly debates a two-year budget and whether or not to support the Ohio Association of Food Bank’s Comprehensive Approach of Hunger Relief. I hope our elected officials and others will take Dan’s words to heart.

John R. Corlett, President and Executive Director

Poverty waits in long, cold lines

I hear it infrequently but enough at my job answering phone calls in the Greater Cleveland Food Bank’s Help Center: poor people scam the system; they drive big cars but come get free food handouts; why don’t they get a job; they don’t really need all that assistance.

What I really wish I could offer…is the opportunity to come to the food bank some day and listen to the calls we get from people who are truly in need

Over the years I have learned to be patient with these callers, to remain calm, let them have their say and then ask them if there is any way I might assist them.

What I really wish I could offer these types of callers is the opportunity to come to the food bank some day and listen to the calls we get from people who are truly in need: the lonely elderly, the 50-somethings who have just lost their jobs of 30 years, the woman who just suffered a stroke.

I would like people to hear about the woman who suddenly has to care for two small grandchildren because their father (her son) just died of an overdose. I would like them to hear about the girl whose father is kicking her out of the house when she turns 18 in three weeks.

These are real people.

More enlightening and powerful, perhaps, would have been to have these callers accompany me and a few of my co-workers when we helped out the Saturday before Thanksgiving at a “Turkey Takeover” held at the East Cleveland Salvation Army, where 1,000 turkeys were distributed.

You do not endure this, literally stand for it, unless you truly need help.

The day was a very cold, rainy one. The doors opened at 11:00 a.m., but when my colleague and I pulled up at 9:00 a.m., there were so many cars we had to park illegally on the street, along with dozens of other cars. As we walked in the cold rain up to the doors, we saw at least 300 or 400 people lined up outside, wet and shivering.

Almost embarrassed to get out of the weather by going through the volunteers’ door, I was once again struck by the thought that gets me every time I see such a line of people waiting to get food: You do not endure this, literally stand for it, unless you truly need help. You are not a very good scammer, you are not lazy, you are trying to help yourself if you wait in this line on this day for a small turkey and a few boxes of produce. You are in serious need.

“Hunger changes your personality.” A woman I recently talked to said this to me. She had lost 30 pounds since she lost her job. She grew frustrated when I told her that her SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly called food stamps) application could take up to 30 days to process. She was frustrated after making so many phone calls to so many places, hearing automated voices, leaving voicemails and being put on hold. She was hungry, now.

Hunger changes your personality

Poverty waits. And waits. In long line after long line for the basics—food, housing, health and employment. These days, so many of us have access to so much with a click or a swipe. We can be so impatient if a webpage does not load fast enough or if somebody is actually writing a check in our grocery store line. And yet some people will stand and move ahead incrementally for hours outside in cold rain for the food that will feed them for a day or so.

Patience may be a virtue, but for the hungry, it is truly, unfortunately, a necessity. It is not a scam.

Dan Rourke
Client Help Specialist
Greater Cleveland Food Bank