January 10, 2017
It is downtown San Bernardino in early December.
“I’m so hungry. I don’t feel good. I’m so hungry.”
The woman explains this in urgent tones as she scrambles off her bicycle and up the steps to the office at St. Bernardine’s. She receives a sack lunch and eats where she stands.
After a bite of sandwich she asks, “Would it be too greedy if I asked for another?” When a volunteer hands her a second lunch, she thanks him, pulls her hood over her face and quietly cries.
Then in a flash she’s back on the bike and gone…but hopefully not forgotten.
That’s the goal of Poverty Awareness Month, an initiative by The U.S. Bishops’ Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD). Throughout the month of January, Catholics are asked to consider the plight of the poor and how they can help. Daily reflections and suggestions are available at usccb.org/about/catholic-campaign-for-human-development/poverty-education/poverty-awareness-month.cfm.
Back at St. Bernardine’s, no such schooling is necessary. The office doorbell rings frequently with a desperate person on the other side. The parish provides what it can…a bag of groceries, a tank of gas, a bus ticket home, but there’s usually more crises than cash. The pastor of the parish, Father Leonard DePasquale, I.M.C., has served there for over a decade.
“The frustration is in our inability to respond to needs that are very legitimate,” he says. “People are suffering and really need help.”
The proof is in the numbers. According to 2015 United States Census Bureau statistics, 15.3 percent of Californians are living in poverty. That’s defined as a family of four earning less than $24,000 a year.
Here in our Diocese, the problem is greater. The San Bernardino County poverty rate is 19.2 percent and in Riverside County 16.9 percent. The numbers are even higher for children and seniors. A steady stream of the latter show up for the Thursday sack lunch at St. Bernardine’s, including 91-year-old Anna Derda.
“Food is so expensive,” she laments. “Grocery stores are charging so much and everyone is on a budget.”
David Ponce, a retired San Bernardino sanitation worker, knows exactly what she means.
“Sometimes I go to the senior center but the food isn’t so good,” he chuckles. “Coming here, it saves me some money. This food helps. I don’t need much.”
St. Bernardine’s Social Concerns Committee, one of many at the parish level in our Diocese, serves about 75 people per week thanks to donations from fellow parishioners. They bag the food then dole it out at the door, no questions asked.
“I slept in my truck for six, seven months. I went from having a family to being on the street. I understand it’s not easy,” explains William Swanson, a member of the committee.
That compassion does not go unnoticed. Carla Carter says she’s “in between homes” and tries to stay with friends but sometimes has nowhere to go. The church becomes a welcome refuge.
“The [volunteers] provide warmth, love and nutrition,” Carter says. “I enjoy the fellowship of other believers like myself.”
But what she really wants is a job.
“We need career resources, businesses to open here like Amazon did. This would help us become successful.”
Catholic Charities San Bernardino-Riverside CEO Ken Sawa couldn’t agree more. He says big companies come with big money.
“One of our greatest disadvantages in the Inland Counties is we don’t have a coast,” he says. “Where there is a coast, there are corporations. Where there are corporations, there are good jobs. And in order to get support for issues like poverty, the larger community needs to have resources to share.”
Catholic Charities hopes all people of faith take time to recognize Poverty Awareness Month. In an ongoing effort to educate, the group hosts Poverty Simulations. Participants are given a mock identity, limited funds and maximum challenges. Then they have to figure out how to pay the bills. This lesson in low-income was recently held at the Diocesan Pastoral Center. Dan McConnell from Our Lady of Assumption in San Bernardino calls the experience eye-opening.
“The biggest surprise was we didn’t eat,” he says. “We tried to get our bills paid so we would have a roof over our head, keep our cars so we could get to work. We put aside the food issue so we ended up missing quite a few meals.”
This came as no shock to fellow participant Ricardo Aguilera.
“I understand the choice between paying bills and buying food,” explains Aguilera, a senior at Cajon High School in San Bernardino. “I live with it every day.”
He came to the event because he eventually wants a career in public policy. Attendee Amanda Bain also knows something about poverty. The Cal State, San Bernardino student was raised by a young single mother. “I wasn’t unhappy but I don’t remember fun weekend interaction. Like ‘Let’s go to the park, let’s go do this, let’s go do that,’” Bain reflects. “There is no time for that. You don’t have the money, you’re tired, you’re stressed.”
Her mother’s stress is now more understandable after attending the simulation.
“I just had no idea the struggle was that deep and impactful on your heart. As a child, you don’t really feel that. You might feel hungry but you don’t feel the weight of the burden as the adults do.”
One of the more challenging burdens, says Sawa, is finding an affordable place to live.
“We really lack a national housing policy that really ensures that regardless of your income there will be a place you can go. Our version of it now is Section 8 housing which is 30 percent of your income.
“But there is a raging war in obtaining Section 8 vouchers. Once you get vouchers then you have to find an opening.”
But often that opening never seems to come. Father DePasquale says there are always waiting lists for the apartments around his parish.
“Why does our society exist in a way that people cannot have a shelter over their head?” he says frustratingly. “We look upon this as a basic need, we talk about works of mercy!”
Bishop Gerald Barnes wants more than talk. He’s asking parishes to continue the Jubilee Year of Mercy’s principles even though it officially closed on November 20. In response, St. Bernardine’s has adopted Mary’s Village, a proposed homeless shelter for men in San Bernardino. Bigger than just a bed for the night, the center will offer job training and other support and rehabilitative services.
“We’re not social workers,” says Fr. DePasquale. “We don’t have a staff that can deal with the problems of the homeless and the impoverished. But together as a community we can. We can cooperate and support them.”
McConnell gets the message. He says he’ll bring new sensitivity to his volunteer ministry at Our Lady of the Assumption.
“Jesus brought me to Outreach Ministry. He called me and I heard and I’m trying to do the best I can,” says McConnell before referencing the well-known theme of Matthew 25.
“He tells me every time I see a person, I’m seeing Him.”