Sunday, October 20, 2013


Last month, the CDC released a new study showing that, from 2008 to 2011, rates of obesity among low-income children, ages 2-4 in WIC monitored programs, fell approximately 1% in 19 of the 43 states. People hail attempts at dietary improvements for this decrease in obesity rates. However, it is not clear exactly why this is happening, since studies show that even when given the exact same diet as their richer counterparts, that the poor will still gain much more weight. This difference is generally attributed to higher cortisol production associated with the stress of poverty. In a 2012 study it was determined that approximately 50 million people are currently food insecure in the U.S., and that number rises to 1 in 4 for children.

A few years ago I moved near a soup kitchen in Florida, a hard hit state which has more than it's share of poor and homeless winter arrivals. After the stock market collapsed, I noticed the arrival of increasing numbers of people to the kitchen, and I was surprised at the obesity of some of them. But not now. Now the obese have slimmed down significantly and considering the high fat and carbohydrate content of the food that most soup kitchens serve (and I applaud them for doing the best that they can!), I find this new finding somewhat frightening. I myself have observed stick thin individuals, some of whom looked to be on the verge of starvation. Once as I was out walking in the late afternoon, I came across two teenagers behind a bush, sitting on a hidden ledge, having a “snack”, which was actually their dinner.

“Oh, I see you've found yourself a nice little hidey hole!” I said with a smile. Then I commented on the treat the young man was eating: a large packaged honey bun. “Oh...that's not so good for you.” It seemed a poor choice for a meal.

“Yes I know,” he said. “And I'm diabetic. But this is what they gave me to eat for later and it's all I've got.” Neither of them was overweight....even though this was typical of the type of food that they ate.

I was totally appalled. “Oh that's awful! I am so sorry! ” I said, with great shame at my judgement. “I wish I could help you, but I'm on food stamps myself.” I wished them luck, then I moved on.

Over a year ago, when I still had a car and was out running errands, I saw a sign at a church announcing “free food today”. I was struggling to keep above water financially, so I thought, Yes, I should take advantage of this opportunity, and went over to apply. As I waited for the doors to open, more people arrived. They were among the poorest people that I have ever seen. The condition of their clothing and obvious lack was so apparent that I began to feel quite out of place. I began to feel somewhat torn about my presence there, but I kept my place in line. When my number was called and I entered into the privacy of the one room panty, they took one look at my license and announced that, “We only serve people who live right here in this community and you live too far away to be in our area, but since you are here and we want to give you something. However, we can only do this once. We won't be able to help you again as we are a small church with limitations. The people we serve are very poor.”

“I AM very poor,” I protested. How could $715 a month not be very poor? It's thousands a year below poverty level.  But then I noted, “However, I am not homeless.” It was obvious to everyone, including myself, that even though my income was well below the poverty line, that my situation was nowhere near the level of desperation of those standing outside.

By now I felt extremely uncomfortable. I suggested repeatedly that maybe I just shouldn't be taking anything. The extent of neglect of the American people and the extreme situation so many were in, dawned upon my consciousness like the great glare of a police light on someone who has committed a heinous crime....I felt great shame....and greed.

But they insisted that I take something, so I did. I eventually opened one can, but I was unable to eat the rest, so I donated what they had given me to a food drive. Since then I have not applied to take home free food anywhere because there isn't enough food to fill a far greater need than I have. Such is the sad, unnoticed, state of the American people.

That many of the American public assume the so called “greed” of the homeless and poor is a true testament of both their projected fear and ignorance. No one lives this way out of choice. No one.

Todays Lesson: “The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty.” Mother Teresa

copyright Linda Matthews 10/20/2013

Update:  Shortly after this was written  the State of Florida enacted back-to-back food stamp cuts and I had no choice but to start attending a local soup kitchen to save money.

Monday, October 7, 2013


The bus route ends near my home and in doing so, follows a lazy loop, both leaving and rejoining the same street west of the library. To escape the early autumn heat, most people catch the bus regardless of which way it is going. I wondered if it had passed already as I didn't wish to be caught off guard if it stopped on the other side, too far away to catch unawares.

A man stood waiting at the stop on the “going back out” side.
“Has the bus passed yet?” I asked.

He made some hand and arm movements that were hard to interpret.

“It's passed on the other side already?” I asked unsure.

This time his movements were more had not yet arrived. Was he looking at me as I spoke, I wondered?

“Are you deaf,” I queried.

He pointed at his throat.

“You're mute? You can't speak?”

Yes, that was it. Thus began a brief conversation, written upon small crumpled papers, magically produced in an eerie form of prestidigitation. An orange, blunt ended dollar store marker quickly wrote this mans' tale of a series of true life unfortunate events, his gestures punctuating his sentences.

With each question I asked came a sudden exasperated outburst noticeable only by a full body reaction, but totally without sound. We communicated in the only means available to him, each answer written in single, well practiced sentences. The bus passed on it's way out as I asked and he answered.

He did not know how long it had been since he had last worked. He had been a self taught tree surgeon. His voice had been lost while in police custody when someone had punched him in the throat. He had sued but lost. He could not get work now. He had tried to collect aluminum cans for money but this only resulted in his being beaten up and the cans stolen. Someone had tried to kill him recently by hitting him in the head with a bottle. He had no real friends, no one that he could actually trust. He had applied for medicare, but denied once, he did not try again. He had applied for medicaid but gave up after the third try.

I told him about my blog and how I was very determined to try and help people to understand the true story of the poor and homeless. I wished I had had more to offer him than sympathy and those moments my words seemed pitifully small, yet they were all I had to give. I told him I would like to write about his circumstances and was that okay? He said yes. His name was Robert.

The bus came and we got onto it. I saved a spot for him. As we bused the short leg to my stop I inquired, “Do you have family?” He did, but not here. “If they knew where you were, would they help you?” He looked taken aback at this question and paused as if it had never occurred to him. Yes, he seemed to think so. I encouraged him to approach the soup kitchen and see if they could contact someone for him. With that I got up to leave. I hoped he would try to contact his family.

It is impossible to know exactly what any one persons' full story is in the span of a bus ride, but it seemed excruciatingly obvious to me that this man had far exceeded his level of tolerance to his situation. It made me think of the overwhelming intensity of emotion so often associated with Aspergers' Syndrome (a type of high functioning autism). Whether he had such a syndrome or not was moot. He had far exceeded his capacity for what life had given him. Even a totally normal person, in such a position of victimization, trying and failing at every possible option, totally friendless and unable to even cry out when attacked ---let alone tell his story--- would most certainly be rendered broken, and likely permanently so. So reactive had he become, no doubt so fearful and seemed impossible to me that he would ever find a job again. Here was a man, who, if nothing else, had been totally disabled by his circumstances.

And all I could do was to write about it.

Todays Lesson: The true alchemists do not change lead into gold; they change the world into words.
William H. Gass, A Temple of Texts

copyright Linda Matthews 10/7/2013