The Great Divide
Montgomery County is famously a place for the well-heeled, and for the wealthy. But it's also a place now where some line up for free food and sleep four to a room.
The Aleman children have lived here their entire lives, but when Sandra is asked where she’d like to travel, she says “our country,” meaning El Salvador, where she has never been. Her favorite foods are pasta and pizza; his are pizza, fries and burgers. And, of course, pupusas.
“I like Bethesda,” their father says. “You have more jobs in Bethesda—restaurants, maybe carwash. I like a job in the carwash. I work in Bethesda, painting houses, too much house, inside, outside, everything.”
He gives a tour of his cluttered apartment, which is decidedly not “too much house.” An iron rests on the living room table next to a TV. There’s also a 12-pack of paper towels and a package of Huggies. Hanging from the wall behind one of two couches is a shirt from the famed España soccer team, which won the World Cup last year, and a prayer in Spanish that Sandra wrote and colored at their church in White Oak. The vertical blinds are broken and won’t open. The kitchen is tiny and old. There is one small bathroom. The bedroom where the Alemans sleep has a TV, a wall-length closet, a crib for the babies in her care, two queen-size beds—one for Sandra, the other for her parents—and a single bed for Henry Jr. Underwear dries on hangers by the window.
Aleman says his hopes for the future include these: “That my boy might grow and go to school. Next year, maybe me working, maybe no work.” But now he must go. He has an appointment at “la clinica” around the corner.
Sandra’s long-range goal: “To make my own life when I get older, to make my career. I would like to live in Leesburg, Va.” Has she been there? “Not really, but I heard it’s, like, nice.” For now, she’s hoping to get part-time work, “maybe in a store,” and to get her learner’s permit. “I’m already 15 and nine months, but I don’t know where to go to the MVA.” She is asked what she’d want if money were no object. She doesn’t even pause before she answers, “I kind of have everything I want.”
On a Monday in mid-August, 35 families have lined up for food during a four-hour distribution at the Manna Food Center in Gaithersburg. Many are the working poor, with part-time or low-paying jobs insufficient to sustain them and their families. They must be referred to receive the monthly allotments: generally a closed box of nonperishable canned goods, an open box of food such as fruit donated by supermarkets, a few odds and ends such as bread, soda or juice, pastry—about 70 pounds per family.
In the 12 months ending June 30, 2008, Manna served nearly 83,000 people in Montgomery County; this year, it served nearly 173,000. Manna also provides weekend food packs to elementary schools based on need. In 2008, Manna gave out more than 11,000 backpacks; in 2011, it distributed more than 61,000.
“We see need everywhere,” says Natalie Corbin, Manna’s development director. “Across the county we’ve seen an increase overall. We have people here who had careers, long-term jobs and lost them because of the economy and are turning to us for help. The reality is any one of us could be in these lines.”
Kim Damion, Manna’s executive director, says: “I’ve had tenured professors in line. The impression of who uses our services is often very different than the reality. People say, ‘Oh, you help the homeless.’
Hardly anyone in our line is homeless. The homeless don’t have a place to prepare food. Now you’re seeing a lot more middle class who’ve worked through their means. These are beautiful people, not the downgrades of society. It could be your next-door neighbor, or your friend. Our line is very diverse—people from all walks of life.”
One 50-year-old woman is here on lunch break from her job as an administrative assistant. She’s about to start a second, nighttime job as a cashier at JCPenney. She has a degree in health care administration from Columbia Union College in Takoma Park that she earned evenings while raising three children, now grown, and she lives in a Germantown apartment. She is here, she says, because of “a shortage.” She is African-American, but the recipients are also white, Hispanic, Asian.
A 45-year-old man who last worked in 2007 and has congestive heart failure is returning to Manna after six months. He used to do pool construction and now does occasional drywall, painting and landscaping. He grew up in the county, gets Medicaid and Social Security disability checks, but it’s not enough. “If it wasn’t for a place like this…,” he says.
The man’s 44-year-old companion used to make $64,000 a year. With her unemployment used up, she’s now making “less than $1,000” a month doing temp work. A widow, she receives some Social Security survivor benefits for her children. She says she worked in Bethesda for years as an office manager for now-defunct stock brokerages and real estate developers. “In the past, it has just been so easy to find a job. I didn’t think it would be like this,” she says. “I’ve been shocked. I’m competing with people with Ph.Ds. I couldn’t even get a job at Walmart.”