Saturday, November 18, 2006

Article published Nov 15, 2006
Homeless agencies feel the pinch
Advocates say recent events make it harder to feed the needy
BRADENTON -- Mary DeLazzer remembers a time when her momma gave bread and cheese and water to the men who rode the rails.

They would come calling nearly every day, and the DeLazzers didn't have much to give. So her momma would scrounge through the cupboard, DeLazzer recalls, and most times the best they could come up with was bread, ice, tapwater and a slice of cheese.

So it is today at Our Daily Bread, where DeLazzer, 75, has spent the better part of two decades feeding the homeless. Like many other soup kitchens and food pantries in Southwest Florida, however, a cascade of events has agencies struggling to keep up with demand.

From Charlotte to Manatee:

An outrageous housing market has priced more and more families out of homes and into transitional living arrangements, such as the dour motels of Tamiami Trail.

Twin homeless ordinances in Sarasota and Bradenton are slowly driving transients to places they had never been before.

A large grocery chain decided to limit perishable items given to agencies.

nA Sarasota soup kitchen that fed thousands each year closed.

To some, the events have created a perfect storm that threatens to cripple local social service agencies on the cusp of the holiday season -- traditionally the time of year when there are more mouths to feed and resources are spread among dozens of organizations.

"There is enough wealth in those counties to keep these agencies alive," said Michael Stoops, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. "This just should not be happening."

The first hit came early this year when Sarasota officials rethought the way it designated homes and businesses in a thriving downtown core. A rezoning initiative means certain businesses -- liquor stores, pawn shops, topless bars, food pantries -- cannot open shop downtown, and one of the area's longest-running soup kitchens felt pressure to get out.

St. Vincent de Paul, the small soup kitchen tucked on Adelia Avenue, was not forced out, because the rezoning affects only new businesses.

Still, St. Vincent de Paul organizers say they felt like they couldn't compete with the resources of one of the country's largest development firms -- Benderson Development Co., which plans a sprawling hotel complex on Main Street and paid nearly $500,000 in April for the soup kitchen's property.

When Benderson offered St. Vincent de Paul $500,000, they took the money, hoping to find a new place downtown. But the group hasn't found a home yet.

And some worry that the city -- dubbed the "meanest in America" for its treatment of the homeless -- has been pushing transients out, as exemplified by an ordinance that makes it a crime to camp on public or private property.

The law, twice ruled unconstitutional and recently upheld by a circuit judge, was followed by a similar measure in Bradenton, where city officials claimed it was a move to "look out for the taxpayers."

To critics, however, the ordinances are an easy way to couch a difficult dilemma, one that pits homeowners versus the homeless. Some say the cities characterized homeless people as drunk, lazy ne'er-do-wells looking for a handout -- and they had to go.

"This assumption is just not true," said Maj. Jack Repass, of The Salvation Army. "These are people who sincerely need help. There is a small population with mental-health problems, or drug and alcohol issues. But most of these people are genuinely down on their luck."

Now, agencies are struggling to feed them. Part of the problem, according to Ana Romillo of the Charlotte County Homeless Coalition, is the rising price of just about everything: homes, gas, food, taxes.

Many social service groups are finding children and families, or the working poor, on their doorsteps in need of a break.

"Everything is so expensive," Romillo said. "The rent is up, taxes are up, insurance is up. What are these people to do?"

Making matters worse for soup kitchens such as Our Daily Bread is a decision by Publix Super Markets to prohibit perishable goods from being delivered to agencies. For years, DeLazzer and Robert Eikill, an administrator at the Tamiami Trail facility, could count on fresh fruits and vegetables from local stores.

But a recent decision by Publix changed all of that, Eikill said, and food pantries were cut off from one of their biggest benefactors. Publix did not return phone calls last week seeking comment.

"They don't want the risk of something being contaminated," Eikill said. "But it hurts to see places -- Wal-Mart, schools, hospitals -- to just throw away food. Especially when we need it so bad."

Amid the din of dishwashers and the hustle of kitchen workers, DeLazzer patted a toddler on the head last week and handed the boy a cup of juice. It was a shade before 11 a.m., and three tables were full at Our Daily Bread, which served more than 6,000 meals last month alone.

On this day, the menu included a sandwich, corn, salad and dessert. It's more than the bread and cheese DeLazzer's momma used to serve, but with more mouths coming in each day, she worries where the next meal will come from.

"We'll find it somewhere," she said. "Even if I have to boil a pot of rice and serve that, we'll keep serving these people."

I volunteered at St. Vincent De Paul's kitchen. We served so many poeple. I was always amazed and am now ashamed that the city has shut them down. So many poeple, where are they to go? Even on the slow days there were more people than I could have imagined. And the people that worked there always had a kind word to everyone and knew these poeple and were part of their lives. I pray for them often.
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