1 What's the story behind the colorful community food pantries we're seeing around town?
The colorful, self-contained community food pantries are the brainchild of Forward Indiana co-founders Sarah Thompson and Carlos Marcano. These pantries, in Allen County and surrounding counties, are supported by a local entity, then designed and painted by Sarah, Carlos or other regional painters as they work to address food insecurity in our community. Pantries are for the community and stocked by the community with nonperishable food items, hygiene/toiletries as well as other products that are needed by someone seeking just a little bit of kindness in their everyday struggles.
2 What's been the response from donors and from those who need food?
The pantries are designed based on the principle of “take what you need, give what you can.” The demand outweighs the supply. Givers are a premium ingredient to the success of these 24/7 pantries, and the need is never-ending. The pandemic has increased the struggles for many; so, a dedicated battalion of givers with a heart to help their neighbors, looking to recognize the commonalities of others with whom we share, is needed daily. This is not a 9-5 situation if we are truly to make a difference in our community and lend a hand up to those in need.
3 How can the community help? What is needed and how can you donate?
Forward Indiana maintains a Facebook page with the locations of the 23 community pantries, in Allen County and surrounding counties, to date. Items needed most are canned goods, pastas, cereals, paper products, hygiene items and more. A donor may place those items directly onto the shelves of any of the pantries which are most convenient for them or donate those items to Street Reach for the Homeless so I may place them in a pantry along with my donations. Since March 6, I have had a standing commitment to stock the pantry at the Wayne Township Trustees pantry, twice weekly, as so many of those living in the elements visit that pantry along with those using the services of the trustee's office. I then make additions to four other pantries in the near-downtown area on a rotating basis each week.
4 The city has seen the addition of several new shelters in recent years – why is your organization, Street Reach for the Homeless, still needed?
I am unaware of any shelter that is not running at or near capacity, and most maintain a waiting list of appreciable length. This pandemic has only exacerbated the need. It becomes more imperative that shelters meet everyone, unique in their needs, their wants and desires, with fewer roadblocks, fewer hoops to jump through, less pounding of square pegs into round holes and, instead, reach out with compassion and acceptance to build foundations, to serve, first, as a platform, for an individual to improve their quality of life.
During this past winter, I put warm coats on 409 men and women! Nearly double what I have done in the past. Since February 28 of this year, as the city's winter contingency program came to an end, I have distributed 258 tents. That figure is also nearly double compared to past years at this same time. These figures are both staggering and frightening! As rent moratoriums come to an end, I fear shelters will, unfortunately, be in even higher demand and that we are currently seeing only the tip of the oncoming iceberg now.
5 What inspired you to become involved in homeless outreach and why do you continue your mission?
I participated in the Fort Wayne Homeless Count in January of 2012. My eyes were opened, and my path was laid as I reached out to help these men and women who so often fall between the cracks. Until we tackle the hard realities of those issues which bring men, women and, unfortunately, families with children, to the streets, the issue itself is likely to continue. With an estimated one out of four individuals and families living paycheck to paycheck, issues such as affordable housing, unemployment and livable wages, health care including mental health services and addiction treatment, poverty, domestic violence, systemic failures, all serve as an ugly propellant to the harsh reality of a tent. Housing alone will never be the solution to this mammoth epidemic known as “homelessness.” If we are ever to find a cure, we must address the often-complex root realities and come together, as a community, to say we care enough to do just that ... and we care enough to do it now!