Local church that collaborates with community breakfast program house aids to alleviate the challenges of poverty
As busy students with deadlines and club activities consuming our time, it is easy to forget that we are part of a larger community. Moreover, lack of information about and interaction with local Wooster residents engenders antagonistic feelings that pit students against so-called “townies.” With homelessness and poverty on the rise in Wayne County, it is essential that students recognize the humanity of locals and make an effort to understand the challenges they face.
Community leader Kevan Franklin, the senior pastor at the Wooster Trinity United Church of Christ (Trinity UCC), is one of those most familiar with the poverty issues currently faced by Wayne County residents. Rev. Franklin oversees the community breakfast program, partnering with the College’s Community Breakfast Program (CBP) House to serve free food every weekday morning.
“The breakfast has been served since 1995 and was started by some public school employees who were concerned about students receiving a hot, nutritious meal in the summer months. They quickly learned that the need was greater than they initially thought,” said Franklin. When Franklin first came to Trinity in 2004, they served around 30 community members per day. Last year, the program served an average of 75 people every morning. However, Franklin sees the benefits of the breakfast program as extending far beyond the food itself.
“I emphasize with everyone associated with the program to look at this as creating [a] caring community and not just a free meal program. The community and care that we share here is more important than the food,” he said.
And for Franklin, taking care of the community goes beyond providing people with a hot meal and kind words. He works actively to help the breakfast guests locate and access a range of services, often to meet needs that students never have to consider. While access to social services such as mental health resources and drug treatment is a key issue for breakfast guests, students who are new to the breakfast program are often struck more by the little things. For example, the volunteers at the breakfast program must take care not to let the toast become too hard because then many of the guests won’t be able to eat it — the poor state of their dental health prevents them from eating crunchy foods without pain. There are, of course, weightier problems to face than toast.
“I visited an elderly man who had told me that he was in the hospital with pneumonia and he said that he was feeling better, but it was hard to sleep on a wooden floor,” recounted Franklin. “I went to his apartment and I was shocked to find that the hospital had released him early to an apartment that [had] nothing more than a bath towel on the hardwood floor for him to sleep on.”
After that, Franklin began asking community members to donate furniture, especially beds. He explained that it is not only a public health issue, but that people have trouble staying awake at work when they can’t sleep through the night. Another challenge currently facing the Wooster breakfast community is in theory simple, but in practice monumental: access to laundry services.
“A large laundry facility at the south end of Wooster closed down a couple of years ago. Churches used to be able to purchase laundry cards for people to use there. After the laundry closed, the nearest place to clean clothes is north of the college campus and many people on the south end of town cannot haul their laundry that far or pay the higher prices,” explained Franklin. Instead of washing their clothes, people have begun resorting to simply rewearing them until they are worn out and have to be thrown away. Franklin described this practice of “disposable clothes” as expensive, dispiriting, and environmentally harmful.
Of course, more than anything else, the most pressing need for most people is simply an affordable place to stay. Franklin stated that this outcome stems from both city policies and community response.
“Builders don’t have an incentive for building smaller, functional houses [and] neighborhoods don’t want affordable housing because they don’t want their property values to decline and are afraid of [perceived] crime in low income places,” he explained. He continued detailing the loss of affordable housing due to city policies, saying:
“They wiped out a tent city a few years ago, which functioned as a kind of overflow place for people to at least sleep in a tent. We also lost a 40 trailer park on Larwill where many of our breakfast friends lived. These people were promised vouchers and shelters, but eventually they all had to pay more for other accommodations and some have ended up on the street.”
As much as Franklin works to provide people with compassionate care, those who have homes in Wayne County are not always as understanding about the challenges faced by those struggling with poverty. Franklin listed some of the many misconceptions community members hold about homeless people living in Wooster, including that they are not from Wooster, that they are dangerous, that they want to be homeless or deserve to be homeless because of mistakes they’ve made, and that they should just go to a shelter.
“This is a common response from people in Wooster,” said Franklin. “They don’t understand the mission or the practices of the Salvation Army, which is the only true homeless shelter here. They only have thirty beds for one thing. For another thing, there are many reasons why people are not allowed to stay there.” So when community members complain with frustration about the “threat” of people sleeping on Trinity’s steps, they don’t realize that shelters often have 90 day stay maximums, if you can even get a spot in the first place.
Just like the greater Wooster community, College of Wooster students don’t always do the best job being sympathetic to those in need in Wayne County. Ella Lang ’21 lives in the CBP house and described a conversation she had during breakfast a few weeks ago with a woman named Dana. Having explained that she was very lonely after her husband and one of her sons passed away in the past few years, Dana told Lang a story about an interaction she had with a College of Wooster student.
“She was walking down the street and she asked a College student for the time,” Lang recounted. “And they said, ‘that’s your own problem.’ And she was very offended by that, understandably, because that is a very rude response. And in light of the conversation about loneliness, it seemed like a moment where she was attempting to connect with somebody during her day, and that wasn’t reciprocated,” said Lang. “You know,” she continued, “we often are intimidated or scared by people from the town, but they also don’t feel comfortable with college students or necessarily feel like college students care about them. And so in order for relations to become better and healthier between the College of Wooster and the City of Wooster, I think it’s incredibly important for students to play their part in creating a safe and welcoming community. And one of the easiest ways you can do that is by simply saying hello to your neighbors who live just down the street from you and giving the time of day to an elderly woman who asks and never thinking that there isn’t enough time to say hi, because I think those small interactions really go a long way.”
When asked what he felt students could do when interacting with members of the community, Franklin seconded Lang’s sentiments.
“I always encourage people to ask a lot of questions. Learn people’s names. A name is important. Be involved and informed about what is happening at each level of government.” He concluded, “We could have so much and we settle for so little.”
(Photo from Facebook)