On the road to shine spotlight on poverty

Posted Jan. 25, 2011, at 7:43 p.m.

At the bottom of my column every week, the tag line refers to a book I wrote after taking a trip living in homeless shelters and on the street all across the U.S. As a broadcaster and journalist, I’d spent much of my career focusing on the disadvantaged here and in other countries. My concern for the poorest among us seems to be like the color of my eyes, something I was born with and never questioned.

It isn’t just genetic though; my upbringing had a lot to do with it. My mom — who said hunger was the only truly curable and preventable disease in the world — always found ways to help feed people who had nothing. And I remember my physician father giving free medical care to the poor.

Still, all this innate regard for folks less fortunate — coupled with decades of volunteering at places such as the Greater Bangor Area Homeless Shelter — didn’t prepare me for what I’d witness living with America’s homeless and their shocking real-life stories about which I wrote my book.

A lot has happened in the four years since “Left Out in America” was published. The economic crisis in October of 2008 — coupled with the foreclosure epidemic that began a year earlier — ushered record numbers of Americans into homelessness and unemployment. In response to imploding world financial markets, failed investment schemes and the collapse of businesses large and small alike, our government financed massive Wall Street and industry bailouts, extended unemployment benefits and created vast stimulus packages in a multipronged effort to stave off financial ruin.

I’ve changed, too. Now instead of volunteering at homeless shelters or soup kitchens and writing stories about Katrina victims or Guatemalan orphans, I work full time overseeing the day-by-day operations of an emergency, transitional and low-income permanent housing facility. Instead of being shocked by the way people live, I expect the worst and use the tools at my disposal to make it better.

Knowing that our country faces even greater challenges than it did when I wrote “Left Out in America,” and better understanding the people who struggle daily with hardship, I’ve headed back on the road to update the national snapshot I once took of poverty in our country.

Sunday night I flew to Atlanta, where I met up with Diane Nilan. Diane is the founder and president of HEAR US, a national not-for-profit agency dedicated to advancing the cause of homeless children. For two weeks, Diane and I will travel through the Carolinas, down into Florida and along the oil spill- and hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast states of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

One of the most exciting stops we are making is Asheville, N.C., where we will meet with Mayor Terry Bellamy. She’s one of the co-authors of a report compiled by the United States Conference of Mayors and released just last month. The information used to frame the plight of the hungry and homeless came from surveys conducted in 2010 in 27 cities with more than 70,000 residents and is used as the bellwether for how life is going for the down and out. You can read the document at usmayors.org.

At first glance the report appears exhaustive. But the argument can be made that hunger, homelessness and poverty — especially in the face of our nation’s recent financial collapse — has become an ever-expanding rural problem. For example, the realities in Washington County — which doesn’t have a single city large enough to qualify for the report and which the U.S. Census Bureau says has only 32,590 residents — are more likely examples of the epidemic effect poverty has had in America’s rural heartland.

Much of where we will travel has experienced twice the devastation that can be found in our nation’s urban centers. In fact, last year the Lewiston Sun Journal reported that 41.9 percent of Washington County households received aid from SNAP, the federal program most of us call food stamps.

I’m hoping with a spotlight turned to rural homelessness and its corresponding lack of public transportation and limited social services, we’ll realize that poverty isn’t just an urban affliction but a national epidemic.

Pat LaMarche of Yarmouth is the author of “Left Out In America: The State of Homelessness in the United States.” She may be reached at PatLaMarche@hotmail.com.

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