Starving for Hope in Los Angeles County

December 16th, 2013

On a crisp November morning in Los Angeles’ MacArthur Park, dozens of scattered bodies stir to life. Woken by families setting up picnics and the whistles of tamale vendors, the homeless rise from beds of dirt with aching stomachs. A new morning has arrived with hunger, along with the fear that another day will pass without a hot meal.

Kara Smith, a 25-year-old Westlake apartment manager, is doing her best to feed them a little hope. One Sunday a month, she organizes a free community meal in the park. Volunteers come from across LA County and beyond to serve platters of fried chicken, spaghetti, salad, fruits and vegetables to anyone in need of a helping hand.

“I’ve been there,” said Smith, who calls her group Neighborhood Hearts. “I couldn’t even afford four-for-$1 Ramen because I was waiting on my income as a student. I know that for some people who have five or six kids, even an orange would help for the week.”

On average, more than 100 people show up for handouts. Men, women and children of all races, they are among the millions of Angelenos who are rapidly approaching a crisis of hunger.

Twenty-seven percent of the 10 million LA County residents now live in poverty, according to an October study from the Public Policy Institute of California and Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality. That threshold depends on family size, but the U.S. Census Bureau defines it to be $23,283 or less in annual income for a family of four.

Regional homelessness is growing as well. The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s 2013 biennial report identified 58,000 individuals living on the streets and in shelters, an increase of 16 percent from 2011.

“When you look at numbers and statistics, it’s real easy to buy into the stereotype … that they’re lazy, they need to get a job, they need to get their life together,” said John Paul Rice, a Neighborhood Hearts volunteer. “There [are] several factors that brought them to that position in their life, and it wasn’t that they woke up one morning and decided this is the way they wanted to live.”

More Angelenos are likely to wake up on the wrong side of those statistics in coming months, as the federal government continues to cut funding for public assistance programs.

On Nov. 1, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), colloquially known as food stamps, took a major hit nationwide. A family of four that once received $668 per month must now shop with $36 less in their pockets, and larger families face significantly more reductions.

Roughly 4 million Californians, a significant chunk of the state’s population of 38 million, will ultimately be affected by the cuts, though seasonal food drives are temporarily providing relief.

“During [the] holiday time of year, different entities are offering free food and free meals that normally do not do so as part of their work,” said Frank Tamborello, director of nonprofit Hunger Action LA. “Starting in January, that’s when the reality of the cuts would actually sink in.”

Come 2014, additional demand will test the hundreds of certified organizations that make fighting LA’s hunger their full-time jobs. As such groups primarily rely on donations and grants, increased need may push some over the edge.

“I’m just busy trying to make sure I feed people seven days a week,” said Millie Mims, founder and director of the Venice-based nonprofit New Life Society.

In a one-bedroom Mar Vista apartment every morning, Mims cooks eight gallons of vegetarian soup, the ingredients for which are donated by local farmer markets. At 5 p.m., she wheels the soup on a cart from her oft-broken van to the Venice Boardwalk, where she serves anywhere between 80 and 100 hungry people. It’s a number far too low for her liking, but budgetary restraints keep her from accommodating more.

“Right now I’m sitting on $300 that we’ve saved up for a month,” she said. “I need to have the headlights worked on on the van because they’re not working. Coming home at 5:30 p.m., no headlights isn’t good.”

Mims has run the nonprofit out of her home for the last three years. She’s on the lookout for a stable storefront in Venice so she can serve a larger population, but she can’t afford to pay another rent.

To get financial support, she said New Life Society needs a solid board of directors. Currently, the company treasurer is her son, who has limited bookkeeping experience.

“Until I get people from the community that have a reputation as being community-oriented and a little well-known … until you have them on your board of directors, you’re not going to get … people giving you money.”

But even long-running organizations like the Brother André Outreach Center in South Los Angeles struggle to feed every mouth that comes to their doors.

For 13 years, Sister Maryanne O’Neil has run the food bank from the grounds of Vermont Avenue’s St. Agnes Parish. With one weekly visit to the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, she stocks up on government-funded cereal, bread, beans, rice, canned fruit and the occasional organic vegetable to feed the 250 families that visit the Center monthly.

“I have one that has 12 persons in the household, I have only one with nine, a few with eight and many who are six,” she said, noting that those handouts offer her clients little relief. The neighborhood Pizza Hut and Ralphs supermarket will occasionally drop off soon-to-spoil food, but even that type of third-party aid is dwindling.

For the first time in her tenure as manager of the Center, O’Neil had to deny clients turkeys this Thanksgiving. Her suppliers said they were simply unable to keep up with this season’s demand.

“Although it bothers me a lot that I can’t give what I’m used to giving, I know that people are resourceful and they will find some other place,” she said. “A lot of them, not all of them. Not the poorest of the poor families, that’s what really upsets me. Moms …  really depend on us here.”

The Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, which raised $68.5 million in grants and donations in 2012 according to public tax records, is also facing its own difficulties.

Each week, the organization hands out more than 1 million pounds of food to regional pantries, kitchens and shelters like the Brother André Outreach Center. That number, however, satisfies less than half of the requests it receives.

“We provide to 670 agencies,” said Communications Director Jennifer Errico, adding that an additional 900 agencies are on the organization’s wait list.

One can only speculate as to how November’s cuts will affect organizations both receiving and waiting on supplies to feed LA’s ever-growing number of empty stomachs. With Congress debating additional cuts to SNAP that would stretch throughout the next decade, regional hunger is moving toward a tipping point of Depression-era magnitude.

“I encourage people to help,” said Kara Smith. Volunteering on the streets can be intimidating, she said, but individual acts of kindness might be the only source of hope for some struggling families.

“Experience it yourself and understand that they’re just normal people too. They just either [had] a hard month or a hard year, or a lot of kids to feed.”

At her last feed in November, more than 20 Angelenos came to offer their support.

“It gives hope, even if it’s just for today, that they can make it until tomorrow, that there are people who care, that are aware,” added John Paul Rice. “I think that the more displays of it that we can do, it can inspire other people to do the same thing.”

Editor’s note: Story was written in advance of the holiday season, but held for publication. It does not reflect the latest news that Los Angeles city officials are considering a ban on feeding homeless in public spaces. More information about this development can be found here.