Thanksgiving Dinner

It was a warm day on Thanksgiving, which made it a good day to be out.  In fact, all of November has been comfortably warm, with no snow and few, if any, days below freezing, although the nights are cool.  Whether this is due to the ongoing climate changes or whether it has simply been a mild month is impossible to say, but many here were quite grateful for both the lack of snow and the above-freezing temperatures.

Happily, there were several choices on Thanksgiving for those of us who are residentially-challenged.  Both in Barre as well as Montpelier, there were free community Thanksgiving dinners available for the needy.  I attended the dinner provided by the Bethany United Church of Christ in Montpelier.  The Bethany Church provides a daily lunch on Tuesday to the community which I regularly attend, so I am quite familiar with the people who normally attend.  In fact, I go to all the free community lunches which various Churches provide during the week, and am long familiar with those who, like myself, prevail upon the charity of others to feed ourselves.  So, although the atmosphere was more festive than usual, it was a familiar experience being there.

I will say that I was surprised at the turnout.  There were many families and individuals who I hadn’t seen before at any of the free lunches.  The entire hall was filled with tables and the entire hall was packed with people eating at those tables. There were clearly several hundreds of people who came, enjoyed dinner, and left during the hour and a half that I was there.  This spoke to me about the economy in Central Vermont, and how the harsh economic times influence what people find they have to do.

During the Holiday Season, both on Thanksgiving and on Christmas, I usually find myself somewhat depressed.  This is common, I believe, with those of us who are distanced from family environments.  The nature of those Holidays, both in image as well as fact, centers around the family, with the passage of time which marks such Holidays in the panoply of yearly events being balanced against the ongoing continuity of the family, with elders reminding us of Holidays past, and children reminding us of the future which they will inherit.  This creates a private sense of blessing which is replicated over and over in homes across America.  When one is homeless, this blessing is something that falls outside of personal experience, which only amplifies the depression caused by those of us who are already dealing with difficult or unfortunate family situations.

Therefore, I was surprised at the large turnout at the free dinner.  It makes sense that many would have chosen to create a festive family event in their own homes rather than be out in public, but were unable to do so.  I can only attribute this to the difficult economic conditions that we are passing through.  It was with a mixed sense of sadness and gratitude that I viewed those around me having their Holiday repast.  That they were able to have a Holiday dinner was a very good thing, but that they had to do so under the auspices of charity was something which, I believe, many found added a melancholy thread of emotion to their day.  Still, there was food to be had, and one must survive as best as one can, and a full belly creates a good mood.

And I must say that Bethany Church outdid itself with the quality and amount of food available.  It was absolutely delicious from beginning to end.  There was cranberry bread, crackers with various cheeses, fresh turkey, mashed potatoes, mashed squash, stuffing, gravy, and various pies all laid out in abundance with milk, cider, juice and coffee to drink.  Everything was fresh-cooked and home-made with no trace of commercial preparation.  The place-mats at the tables were hand-done by children from the various schools and were decorated with messages.   This in particular was quite touching.

The Dominoes Are Starting To Fall

In previous posts, I have written about the desultory state of the American economy and the misery that it is inflicting on greater and greater numbers of Americans.  And although the life styles of most Americans have a reassuring constancy, they are being played out against a background of growing darkness and despair unlike anything seen by the majority of Americans alive.  It seems to be rapidly becoming a black or white scenario for people, either they are doing fine or they have fallen by the wayside and have little to look forward to.

One quick reality check would be to call the homeless shelters in your area and see how many of them have beds available.  This is a good way to gauge your local community’s economic health from a viewpoint that you do not normally experience.  Here in Vermont, there are currently no beds available on a state-wide basis (although a sparse handful come and go every other day or so), with the average stay in a shelter increasing to well over a month’s duration.  This crisis in homelessness is only going to worsen in the next few years, and, so far, no one is doing anything about it.  Shelters are not being constructed to absorb the growing number of families and individuals who need them.  A recent visit by a UN investigator found the situation shameful, saying, “The housing crisis is invisible for many in the US. I learned through this visit that real affordable housing and poverty is something that hasn’t been dealt with as an issue. Even if we talk about the financial crisis and government stepping in in order to promote economic recovery, there is no such help for the homeless.”

And it is not simply the impact of homelessness which may be utilized as a measuring rod against which to gauge the dilemma, but rather the viability of the job market as a whole and its ability to lift the homeless back into mainstream society.  The Pew Center on the States has recently examined the current situation and has found that 9 states, in addition to California, face extremely difficult fiscal problems.  In Florida, for example, the state has run out of unemployment money, and as of the first of the year will increase the rate at which businesses contribute to the unemployment fund by over 1,000%.  The obvious impact of this will be that businesses, especially smaller businesses in Florida, will be hiring as few employees as possible.  This will not stimulate the economy or lead to economic growth.  In New Jersey, the incoming Republican administration is trying to slow down current spending to alleviate an anticipated $8 billion dollar shortfall.  With these, and other, bellwethers visible on the horizon, it should be clear that 2010 in America is going to be a year of suffering for an increasing percentage of the populace.

Behind these specifics, there is the growing specter of hunger in America.  Although long considered unthinkable, there are more and more Americans going hungry already.  Food Stamp benefits are at record levels, but even so, some go hungry in this nation.  And as the economic crisis deepens, we are in danger of becoming a nation of “haves” and “have nots,” much like any third world country.  And again, nothing is being done to prepare for the obvious.  Food pantries are begging for donations; soup kitchens, having limited monies available, are having to cut back on the quality of their meals in order to feed the growing number of hungry people that are attending the meals.  In the world at large, 1 in 6 goes hungry at some time during the year.  And last year in America (in 2008), the same number, 1 in 6, went hungry at some point, and a third of these are children.

And behind these unsettling facts, is the erosion of the US currency.  With the vast amount of dollars created to fund the banking system, the growing imbalance of the trade deficit, and the deepening budget deficit, has come the awareness by foreign governments that the dollar may be ending its role as the dominant international currency.  Since so much of the American economy is pure consumerism and we are already importing so much more than we export, the weakening of the dollar holds significant peril for the average American consumer.  With the states in crisis, common citizens falling into homelessness and hunger, and the Federal government unable to stem the tide of need which is beginning to embrace America, the outlook for 2010 looks grim indeed.

And let’s not even discuss 2011.

The Early Dark

I haven’t been writing lately, even though there’s much going on in the world and in my life.  Times have been hard.  Personally, my living situation has gotten precarious, and I have lost my bed at the shelter.  I am now on an ‘overflow’ mattress on the locker room floor.  I’ve been at the shelter for almost a half-year now, and they want me gone.  This is reasonable, it’s just difficult in that I am close to a permanent resolution about my housing situation.  It’s a typical ‘Murphy’s law’ type of situation .. the closer you get to a solution, the more unexpected problems crop up to get in your way.  This, more than anything else, has kept me from writing, but it is better to face a hard truth than to avoid it, so … back to it.

With Halloween’s passing this year, we also had the setting of the clocks back to standard time.  Oftentimes, at sunset, I have been going up to Hubbard Park and watching the day turn into night over Montpelier, and so I have to do this an hour earlier.  Hubbard Park is an undeveloped wooded hill which is right in Montpelier and overlooks the city.  I now do this between 4 and 5 PM rather than 5 and 6 PM.  The flow of traffic is different and not quite as heavy which takes away some of the visual splendor of the moments, but it is still a peaceful and pleasant thing to do.  And, also noticeable, is that the air temperature at sunset passes into a chillier ambiance than was present during September and October.  Soon, it will not be warm enough at sunset to continue doing, but for the moment, it provides a perspective that is elusive for many; the drama of the the cityscape laid out before one with, at the same time, the majesty of surrounding woodland.

And although such bucolic interludes are pleasant for me, I have not failed to notice the worsening of life in America as we move ever deeper into a financial morass which is not likely to have a benign resolution.  Foreclosures on housing continue to mount, with the third quarter of this year being the worst yet.  California slides further and further into a situation of no return.  And California, with its huge deficit, is just the tip of the iceberg as all the states are trapped in a similar situation due to the lessening of taxes on devalued properties and a lessening of taxes on sales of items at the retail and wholesale level.  And ironic symbols are beginning to pop up which demonstrate the folly of the philosophy behind the bailout, such as the number of bankruptcies in America is now similar to the number of divorces in America, and the growing number of families relying on food stamps to get by.

And, just for the record, let me say that a “jobless recovery” is a contradiction in terms.  Without people able to work permanent and full-time jobs, there is no mechanism to sustain any aspect of this so-called recovery.  With the U3 unemployment rate (receiving benefits while seeking a new job) over 10% now, and the U6 unemployment rate (total number of unemployed) estimated at 20 to 22% of the workforce, and with 6 applicants now available for each available job, it is clear that our beloved nation is quickly sinking into a third world country scenario.  It is a downward spiral with nothing in place to change its direction.

If the money (estimated in the trillions to the tens of trillions) which has been given to Wall Street and the banks “too big to fail” had been given directly to the taxpayers (and, after all, it is THEIR money being spent here), mortgages would have been brought current, credit card debt would have been brought current, and people would still have savings left over to fuel the banks’ need for cash.  And although this would have been completely unjust and unfair to those who had been frugal, it would have had the benefit of at least addressing the problem.  Clearly, all the steps which have been taken so far have not as yet had the slightest influence on the root cause of the problem, which is an employed citizenry with some discretionary spending at their disposal.