“When you are poor the rent always eats first.”
That analysis, from a representative of Connections for the Homeless, pretty much sums up why the number of households visiting the organization’s Dewey Avenue food pantry has nearly tripled in the first seven months of this year versus the same period in 2021.
Data from the agency shows 2,113 households using the pantry from Jan. 1 through Aug. 1. Only 764 households visited in the same period a year ago.
“By giving people food it allows them to pay their rent,” says Nia Tavoularis, development and communications director at Connections.
“It’s indirect eviction prevention.”
Ironically, household visits to Connections’ other pantry, on Chicago Avenue , are down somewhat year to year, 583 now versus 758 in 2021.
However, there is generally a difference in clientele between the two facilities.
The Chicago Avenue location downtown, Connections’ original pantry, caters more to those with no place to sleep unless they can get into a shelter. Only non-perishable food is available here.
The Dewey facility in the 5th Ward, however, has a greater variety of offerings, including items requiring refrigeration, and so is more likely to serve families, or at least people who have somewhere to stay, even if it’s moving from one relative’s house to another.
Tavoularis says Connections is “definitely” seeing a lot of new clients at Dewey, individuals who are “unstably housed,” not sleeping on the streets or in a shelter, but still in a challenging situation.
“Sometimes,” Tavoularis notes, “food is a great way to earn your keep.”
Many people fell behind economically during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, losing their jobs and/or becoming ill.
Now add in high inflation for food, gas, clothing and rent, and many on the economic margin, Tavoularis says, “can’t keep up with the cost of everything.”
And even with the job market opening up, and pay increasing, Tavoularis says there is still a problem.
Even where salaries start at $18 an hour, likely higher than pre-pandemic, Tavoularis says child care expenses can wipe out much of the pay, putting low-income people back on the brink.
“If you have money for child care and transportation things are very different,” she explains.
Another local pantry, at the Hillside Church in Northwest Evanston, also reports an increase in demand, although it is a much more modest 15%.
Hillside’s pantry is open on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The organization says it averages about 500 household clients weekly.
The two Connections locations are open Monday through Friday, and offer services besides food, such as showers, clothing and case management.
But wherever they are located, and whomever they serve, food pantries continue to need contributions.
“People can recover” from homelessness or economic need, if, Tavoularis says, they get access to resources.
But those resources have to be there.
So the question, Tavoularis asks, is “are we as a community going to recognize that not everyone has recovered” from hard times?
“The recovery has been uneven.”