x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

US braces for a tough Thanksgiving

Danielle Brock speaks with her child Lamar at a motel in Denver, where she has been living since she was laid off from her job.

Danielle Brock speaks to her child, Lamar, at a motel in Denver, where she has been living since she was laid off from her job. l
Danielle Brock speaks to her child, Lamar, at a motel in Denver, where she has been living since she was laid off from her job. l

DENVER // Pastor Dwayne Johnson spends his days knocking on doors of seedy hotels, trying to find families who have lost their homes in the US economic crisis. He finds them living amid cockroaches, mouldy carpets and whatever personal belongings they could carry with them. This week, he was inviting residents at Denver's King Motel, a dilapidated lodge for the down and out, to accompany him for a traditional turkey dinner today. "You want me to pick you up for Thanksgiving?" he asked Sherry Clark, a disabled woman. "You better believe it," she answered with a toothless smile. Thanksgiving is normally a day when US residents get together with family members to show appreciation for everything they have. But this year, with the economy in a tailspin and unemployment rising, there have been disturbing signs of how little many US families are surviving on. Last weekend, the Miller family in Weld County, Colorado, opened their 243-hectare farm to the public, having decided to give away extra produce they had grown before the first winter freeze. An astonishing 40,000 people turned up to harvest food, leaving cars snaking around cornfields and parallel parked on rural Route 66. The family planned to open the farm for the entire weekend but closed the event after one day. "The pickings are pretty slim now," Chris Miller said. A Denver food bank, which was expecting about 1,500 families for free Thanksgiving dinner handouts - including frozen turkeys, a bag of potatoes and vegetables - was stunned when 9,000 families showed up at its doors. City officials and aid workers estimate that 30 per cent of Denver's 10,000 homeless are first-timers. "Last year to this year, we have given out 50,000 more free meals," said Brad Meuli, president of the Denver Rescue Mission. Most blame a combination of economic factors - the housing crisis, rising unemployment and soaring food prices - that together make it hard for low-income families to make ends meet. "I have been doing this for six years," said Mr Johnson, who works with Mean Streets, a volunteer society that helps the homeless and the working poor. "It's worse now than it's ever been." The problem is not unique to Colorado. In Montebello, California, last weekend, nearly 5,000 turned out for a food giveaway, a number that overwhelmed organisers who had tried to keep it a low-key event, by only announcing it at a handful of churches and schools. Still, a diverse mix of people stood in a queue for six hours and appeared to include middle-class families from surrounding townships. No one left empty-handed, organisers said. Meanwhile, in Van Nuys, California, about 2,000 homeowners showed up for a bank workshop promoted as Home Preservation Day. The bank had mailed notices to homeowners in trouble with their mortgages and on Saturday offered them a chance to rework the terms of their loans. Bankers had hoped 100 would turn out and planned for 200. Loan counsellors had time to meet with a fraction of homeowners and some were reported to have been turned away. There are other signs of distress as well. New York and Chicago have reported increases in bank robberies. Psychiatrists nationwide say they are writing more prescriptions for antidepressants. And the city of San Francisco is preparing to install a mesh safety net under the Golden Gate Bridge. The number of people jumping to their deaths has begun to rise. On Tuesday, Mr Johnson knocked on Room 125, which for the past week and a half has been home to Danielle Brock, a single mother, and her four children. Ms Brock lost her rented home when she was laid off from a security firm. She admits she has made some bad decisions in life, but she is not sure how she ended up here. Ms Brock now collects cash vouchers to pay for her room at the King Motel. And she is not even sure she can continue making the weekly payment of $170 (Dh624) to stay there. Like many who got caught short in the economic downturn, Ms Brock said she feels she could get her life back on track with a little start-up money to make a down payment on a rental place and a steady job. But she has trouble finding work because she cannot give potential employers a phone number where they can reach her. It is expensive to do laundry and hard to get around town. "It's just a matter of getting over that hump." This Thanksgiving, Ms Brock and her children will have a turkey dinner with a family friend. "I am trying to keep my spirits up," she said as her three youngest came home from day care, proudly showing off winter coats they were given by a local aid group. "But it's hard. I don't know where my kids are going to sleep from night to night." gpeters@thenational.ae Hard Times is an occasional series exploring ways people around the world cope with the financial crisis