Too Many Have Hungry Holidays

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - December 12, 2007

There’s a problem out there in this great land of ours, one as large as our bloody adventurism abroad or our neglect of the planet.

It’s a problem we are reminded of particularly this time of year: poverty, seemingly never-to-be-erased poverty, in the midst of our national culture of abundance.

The reminder backs at us this time of year. It begins with news clips of hordes of shoppers rushing into the 6 a.m. store openings the day after Thanksgiving.

It persists throughout the holiday season in the advertising sections that fatten our newspapers and magazines, in the television advertisements urging us to give our wives or girlfriends cars or diamonds for Christmas, or (in an ad that hits closer to this consumer’s heart) to buy our hubbies yet another aloha shirt.

But while we consider buying diamonds, cars, shirts, electronics or - here in Hawaii this particular Christmas season, Sugar Bowl travel, room and ticket packages - too many of our fellow citizens worry about shelter or food or a few gifts for the kids.

It’s a national problem, and it is worse this year. Sixty-one percent of charities across the country report demand up in 2007; 71 percent of those that help with housing and shelter say that they’ve received more calls for aid. And it’s worst when it comes to the staff of life: 80 percent of those organizations that help provide food for the needy report higher demand.

In some places it’s a crisis. Homeless shelters in Minneapolis report serving more people by the end of September of this year than they did in all of 2006. New Hampshire food banks report demand up 40 percent but food supplies down some 30 percent. Said one New Hampshire food pantry official: “The price of oil and gasoline, rents and foreclosures are affecting everyone. Now it’s not just the homeless who are hungry, it’s working people too.”

Numbers tell the story. Food costs are up 4.5 percent in 2007 - even higher for staples like milk and eggs. And oil prices ... well, just check the nearest gas pump.

Hawaii charities are feeling the pinch. On PBS-Hawaii’s Island Insights last week, Polly Kauahi of the Hawaii Foodbank attributed part of the food supply problem to technology: “Improved technology allows supermarkets to maintain tighter inventory controls. That leaves them and other retailers with less food to donate to food banks.”

Susan Au Doyle of the Aloha United Way also appeared on the program. The AUW runs a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week 211 crisis number for people in need. The AUW phones have been ringing off the hook. They’re averaging 3,757 calls per month this year, compared to 3,422 per month in 2006. AUW staff and volunteers refer callers to agencies where they can receive help.

What do the callers need? No surprises here: food, housing and health insurance.

Just as the year-end holidays constitute the profit season for Island retailers, they also are the peak months for many charities. The Salvation Army’s bell ringers are almost as emblematic of Christmas as Santa Claus and a fir tree - and vital to the charity’s work on behalf of the needy throughout the year.

“Our bell ringers will bring in approximately $750,000 during the holidays, and our direct mail solicitations will match that,” says Maj. David Hudson of the Salvation Army of Hawaii and the Pacific. “Our total income during the remaining 11 months of the year will equal what we receive during the holiday season.”

Yet nationally, charitable contributions are down. According to one study, households with an annual income of $200,000 per year - or of $1 million in assets - make two-thirds of all donations to charity. But these same households are some of the worst hit by the nation’s mortgage mess and its effect on stock prices.

Hawaii’s charities, like those across the nation, slog on, doing the most important work of this Christian holiday season. Blaine Roque, one of the other Insights guests, understands that. A single father of two children, Roque has fought through addiction problems and homelessness. He now has a job, an apartment in Salt Lake and food for his family. Roque credits a charity called “Family Promise.”

So should we all credit Hawaii’s charities this holiday season, and so should we all give to them as generously as we possibly can.

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