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Reality of poverty a need-to-know proposition 

The holiday season is here in Colorado Springs and we are seeing the annual blizzard of charitable fund-raising efforts. Just as the retail businesses do, many charities raise much of their annual budget during the five or six weeks of the season.

Against this background, I read with interest last week's Independent article by Lynda McDonnell on our national "amnesia" about poverty. How is our local community consciousness on poverty issues? Do our local high school teachers lead the same discussions about poverty with high school seniors that Ms. McDonnell did of her college seminar's freshmen students?

Is poverty off our local radar screen? I don't think so. The last year has seen a high-profile promotion of the now-on-its-way homeless mega-shelter. The Gazette runs a daily Empty Stocking appeal story of some individual or family being assisted by one or more of our social service agencies. The Rescue Mission's "old, homeless white guy" (more on him later) also runs daily. Charitable appeals arrive almost daily in the mail.

What is the average person's perception of all this? As a 20-plus year volunteer at the Marion House Soup Kitchen, I encounter some of those young people who choose to be involved with poor people. I am also very aware that the backbone of the soup kitchen volunteer staff are retired people. I've had disturbing conversations with young adults, similar to those Ms. McDonnell relates, that reveal serious isolation from those in need. Perhaps more disturbing, however, are my conversations with fellow Boomers closer to my own age that show a real disconnect with the reality of poverty in our community.

How to learn more? There are several structured programs to get people involved at varying levels on the front lines. The National Merit Scholarship Program requires community service as part of its requirements. Over the years I have encountered hundreds of these young people as they served and learned about a way of life that was very different than their own. The Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission offers, on a regular basis, their one- and two-day "Urban Experience" classes. These are a sort of total immersion into the world of the poor and homeless of our city involving site visits, role playing, conversation with poor people and those who serve them. All these are good teaching tools but the real way to educate one's self is to become a worker (paid or volunteer) with one or more of the front line agencies on an ongoing basis.

There is much to learn. The media presents a rather distorted picture of who's out there. Many people, when asked about homelessness, first think about old drunken men on skid row. The reality is that families with children and working people are rapidly increasing in the homeless population. It just so happens that the "old, homeless white guy" we see staring into his bowl of soup in the daily Rescue Mission appeals is the best means of raising funds. That picture is the result of serious market research. Pictures of women and children, younger men and men of other races don't bring in the resources like the picture we see. So, the incorrect stereotype lives on.

Serving the poor is a huge local industry. The 2000 "Continuum of Care" application for HUD funding for homeless efforts in our community lists all the government and private moneys being directed at homelessness (a small part of the whole poverty spectrum). In addition to the $1.3 million the application asks for, the document lists the $15 million in assorted government funding and $8 million in private donations already budgeted in our community. The majority of those who showed up at City Council on November 14 wearing those red "MCC" tags weren't just there because they thought the mega-shelter to be a good idea. For that day, it was their job, with salary and benefits, to be there wearing a red tag.

Perhaps part of this national amnesia is due to the perception that the paid professionals are taking care of things. The many appeals that I have studied since reading Ms. McDonnell's article often imply this. "Send us a check and we'll take care of this awful problem," they say. Between paying taxes and maybe a United Way payroll deduction, you've done your part.

But that is only part of our duty. The other part is to learn more about the people this is all about. The local opportunities for this are plentiful. Please, get out there, to help and to learn.

Matt Parkhouse is a long-time local volunteer and advocate for the homeless of Colorado Springs.

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