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The Soup Line Gets Longer and Older

New America Media, News report, Ngoc Nguyen Posted: Oct 14, 2008

The recession is decimating many elders' savings and some are finding themselves in line for a free meal in San Francisco's tenderloin. NAM reporter Ngoc Nguyen recently visited St. Anthony's dining hall.

SAN FRANCISCO - Anitra Pearson, 62, likes the free meals at St. Anthony's but says it's hard to get there from the Mission district, where she rents a room in a hotel. "People are nice. I take some food home if it doesn't spoil. I don't have a refrigerator," Pearson says, and she doesn't have a kitchen and can't reheat the food either.

st anthony'sPearson brings a Tupperware container to pack away some of the chicken and rice, for dinner later. She slides a slice of cake in a plastic baggie provided by the dining hall. If the food spoils, she'll have to "do without" at dinnertime. The food helps to settle her stomach, which grumbles because of all the medications she takes.

The elderly and seniors, like Pearson, are finding their fixed incomes severely stretched as the costs of food, fuel, medicine and housing inch up every day. City food banks and places like St. Anthony's that offer free meals, are reporting longer food lines.

At the same time, government funding cuts, higher food and fuel costs and a slump in private-sector donations are squeezing charitable providers. The effect is now trickling down to seniors, the elderly and families who are experiencing the further fraying of the social safety net.

"More people are coming in (daily), because the cost of food is going up," says St. Anthony Foundation spokesperson Francis Aviani. "While people look to the Dow Jones fluctuations as economic indicators," she says, "we're seeing it in people's faces."

Anitra Pearson is a retired nurse who worked for a nurse registry; she was assigned to hospitals throughout the city. She stopped working about five years ago because of health problems, including severe asthma.

"It's scary not being able to breathevery scarysometimes I can't get to my (medicine dispenser) pump fast enough. Sometimes, my neighbors help me." Living in a mold-infested hotel room has worsened her health, she says.

With Pearson's expenses for medications, food and rent, the SSI money (Supplemental Security Income -- monthly government help to low-income seniors and the disabled) she receives is thinly stretched, and it's hard to make ends meet, she says. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's 2008-2009 budget suspends cost of living adjustments to the SSI and state supplemental program that ensured payments kept pace with rising costs.

Pearson pays $550 for rent. She used to receive a subsidy for low-income renters of $300 at the end of the year. "I got a letter from the state yesterday telling me I'd no longer get the rebate because of recent state budget cuts," she laments.

Anni Chung, president and CEO of Self-Help for the Elderly, says a 10-percent reduction to physician reimbursements will further undercut doctor access for Medi-Cal recipients; it could have a profound impact on the elderly. "We won't know the severity until the state tells us the final reduction," Chung says, "because the state and federal governments are still wrangling over the Medi-Cal cuts.

St. Anthony's dining room serves 2,600 meals a day, 600 more meals per day than they served last year. About a third of the population that St. Anthony's serves are seniors. St. Anthony's is primarily supported by private donations. Demand is up, but donations are flat, says Aviano.

Meals are served at 10:30 a.m. for seniors, elderly and families and opens to the general public at 11:30. During the three-hour, mid-morning rush, the dining hall is packed. During the first mealtime, volunteers serve up to two shifts of hot meals.

Lauro Busto walks a few blocks from his apartment in San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood for lunch at St. Anthony's dining room. "Normally I'll be here," says the 86-year-old, who says he has been getting hot meals in the dining hall three to four times a week since 1995. Wearing a blue cap, the smiling Busto says he usually enjoys the food. Occasionally, they serve one of his favorites -- chicken adobo, a popular Filipino dish.

"I get two meals," he chuckles. "I put some of the food in a bag and save it for later."Busto says the free meals help. He receives SSI but says the rising cost of living has eroded his fixed income. "SSI is not enough for me."

Increasingly, Asian American immigrants in the Tenderloin, like Busto, are showing up during mealtimes. A petite Chinese-American woman, who goes by the name Michelle, doesn't sit down long after she's eaten her lunch. She chats with some of the diners, and takes pieces of fruit left on the table by folks who don't want them. Michelle declined to give her last name and age, because she says she's well known in the neighborhood and is embarrassed to be seen at a place that provides free meals.

Wearing a maroon coat, Michelle goes from table to table and collects red and green pears, filling up an entire plastic bag with fruit. Diners are giving away their pears because it's hard for them to eat it. "Dental health is a big problem. It's so low on the (priority) list," Aviani says. "Some people can't bite into the food."

Michelle doesn't take a bite of the fruit either, but happily squirrels it away for other people. "I give the pears to others in the neighborhood," she says. "One neighbor has children and she can't leave the house, so I bring food for them."

st anthony'sThe free meals help, Michelle says, because "I only have money to buy medicine." She says she can go without eating, but "with medicine, there's no choice, you have to buy medicine." She prefers to get meals at St. Anthony because they are given free of charge. Similar social services groups in Chinatown charge at least $1.50 per meal. "That's $45 a month," she says.

"If they have absolutely no money, even $1.50 is hard," Chung says. Her San Francisco-based nonprofit primarily serves Chinese Americans and offers a food bank and home-delivered meals program. Because the program is supported through federal funds, Chung says, they ask for a "suggested donation" of $1.50.

Chung says the group's funding has remained the same, but costs are going up. Contractors are charging more to offset the rising cost of food and fuel. Chung's group is considering asking diners more for meals. "We have to find the extra money somewhere," she says.

Asian-American elders, typically, have more savings than other groups, Chung says, and they often rely on relatives for lodging and food. "About 99.9 percent are living with family members. They may not want to add to the burden of relatives," she says, offering an explanation for why more Asian elderly are waiting in food lines. "The economy is pressuring immigrant families from all angles."

As hard as it is to get along on a fixed income, some people may not even have that, Chun says. "Legal immigrants are now appearing in free food lines." Welfare reform in 1996 granted SSI only to elderly who are U.S. citizens. She says more people in the community are lining up for the group's food bank program. "The supplemental food helps, even with SSI. There's very little left."

st anthony'sAt St. Anthony's dining hall, Anitra Pearson finishes packing up the remnants of her lunch. She's wearing an "Obama 2008" pin on her jacket and says she plans to vote for him because she wants to see change for the better.

"We're paying for the war. Now they want us to send money to Wall Street," Pearson says. "They are the richest people in the world. It's not fair. Why does it have to come from low-income people, folks in a soup line like I am, instead of the rich? It's not right."

Photo credits: Mona Koh

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