“Hunger is in everyone’s backyard,” said Newtown Congregational Church Assistant Minister Allysa De Wolf, including Newtown. Two food pantries, FAITH in the basement of St John’s Episcopal Church on Washington Avenue, and the Salvation Army food pantry in Town Hall South, serve residents year round, and the number of people who make use of the pantries has increased in recent years.
Hunger and homelessness need to be talked about, she said, and with that in mind, Ms De Wolf has organized a special program, “The Face of Poverty and Homelessness.” The program, sponsored by the Newtown Congregational Church Human Service Committee, will take place Tuesday evening, May 13, from 7 to 9 pm, in the lower level library of Newtown Congregational Church, 14 West Street, and is open to the public.
“My dad grew up very poor, and he emphasized to us the importance of access to food,” said Ms De Wolf, in explaining one of the motivations behind her decision to organize the program.
Speakers will include Nancy Taylor, a longtime volunteer at FAITH Food Pantry, and Bonnie Lees from The Dorothy Day Hospitality House in Danbury. Both women will address the local issues of hunger and homelessness.
“The program is not just statistics,” said Ms De Wolf, although she admitted to being surprised to discover recently that the greatest population of those in need of food are children under the age of 18. “It’s a look at the complex reality of funding, transportation, and health issues that prevent people from getting a job, or of those who have jobs that are not providing a living wage. The goal of this talk is to create more empathy and compassion for people who are dealing with [the realities of joblessness, homelessness, and inability to provide meals], so that we can find better solutions,” she said.
There is no reason for people to go hungry, Ms De Wolf said.
“There is enough food in this world, but people are hungry because of politics, economics, class, and race — things you don’t think of as having to do with food,” she said.
Bystanders may ask why a person doesn’t just get a job or why if someone claims to not have food, he or she is obese. It is because of the abovementioned issues, said Ms De Wolf, and obesity is linked not necessarily to quantity, but to the poor quality of food available to the poor.
She hopes that the program will help overcome stereotypes of who utilizes food pantries and social services. People in need are often stigmatized as having trouble with the law, drug problems, and poor hygiene.
“I think people would be surprised,” Ms De Wolf said. As a youth leader at Newtown Congregational Church, she has accompanied youth groups to New York City and Bridgeport, where they have participated at soup kitchens.
“Our kids notice, ‘These people don’t look poor. They have new clothes.’ I think their expectations were that people [at a soup kitchen] would be poorly dressed, older, and that it was a minority problem. They discovered that is not the case, at all,” Ms De Wolf said.
She has also observed a change in the population that makes use of soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and food pantries over the several years she has volunteered at various locations.
“I’ve noticed more people who are twenty- or thirty-something than I used to see, and more people with small children,” Ms De Wolf said.
Residents of Newtown need to understand that hunger and homelessness are local issues, she said.
“The fact is that you can drive 30 minutes from here to Bridgeport or Danbury and see that these are our neighbors, and that there is so much to be done there,” said Ms De Wolf.
Homelessness does not always mean sleeping on the street, she said, “but homelessness in the broader sense includes people who live in unstable situations. They might have a roof over their heads, but they are couch surfing, or living in motels.”
While many people do make use of local food pantries, the stigma of utilizing a food pantry, even short term, is so strong that Ms De Wolf believes there are many in need who do not do so. In a small community like Newtown, it may be even more a sense of pride that prevents people from seeking assistance, she said, for fear that others they know will find out or look down on them.
“There’s a lot of pride involved to go to a food pantry,” she pointed out. People who had a good life, unexpectedly fall on hard times, and are suddenly in a situation where life is not so kind find it difficult to reach out for assistance, as do the elderly. “They don’t want to be seen as poor,” she said.
Confidentiality is a strong point among those who volunteer at food pantries, though, she said.
“Doing a program like [The Face of Poverty and Homelessness] is to give those in need dignity. It is to help others learn not to judge. You never know someone’s story,” Ms De Wolf said.
Anyone who is interested in knowing more about the complexities of hunger and homelessness will benefit from attending “The Face of Poverty and Homelessness,” she said. “They may come away realizing how close to home it is, and what’s going on in our own back yard, as well as what is available to help [those in need],” Ms De Wolf said.
“If you can’t volunteer time at a food pantry or shelter, most places have lists of what they really need,” she said. Calling beforehand to find out what is most needed is a good idea, she said, before purchasing items to donate.
“Sometimes we want ‘glamorous’ giving, but what people need is often not glamorous. Sometimes,” she said, “people just want a fresh tomato…”
Providing fresh produce is another way to support the food pantries, said Ms De Wolf. “If you have a garden, consider setting aside some fruit or vegetables to donate. So much of what most of us take for granted is really precious to others,” she said.
The need for other services often goes hand in hand with the need for food. Volunteering to assist those in need to make their ways through the bureaucracy of paperwork, to access those services, is another way to help, she suggested.
“Poverty doesn’t have a face,” emphasized Ms De Wolf. “It can be anybody.”
There is no charge to attend the May 13 program, nor is registration necessary. Attendees are welcome to bring nonperishables food and hygiene items, and the church will see that they go where needed, Ms De Wolf said.
For information on local volunteer opportunities or donations needed, contact The Dorothy Day Hospitality House at 203-743-7988; the Norma F. Pfriem Urban Outreach Initiative in Bridgeport through the United Church of Christ at 203-335-3107; FAITH Food Pantry at 203-426-5604; or Newtown Salvation Army food pantry at Newtown Social Services, 203-270-4330.