‘It’s not what we serve …’

Rev. Dr. Shannon Spencer speaks to volunteer servers at 12 Baskets Cafe.

A year ago, I was arrested in Washington for disrupting the Senate as its members prepared to debate repeal of the Affordable Care Act. I was  sentenced to 48 hours of community service.

I went straight to 12 Baskets Cafe, where I’ve volunteered a couple of days a week since — long after my sentence was completed.

Almost every Tuesday and Thursday, you’ll fine me standing near the door, scraping plates into a large compost bin. My position allows me to greet everyone who comes in and to make sure people have had enough to eat before they leave.

I see all kinds of people, not just poor and/or homeless, but working people, retirees who want to stretch their budgets with some good, nutritious food.

The cafe is in Kairos West Community Center off Haywood Road at State Street in West Asheville, and it was classed as a community center when the permits were issued for the cafe to open.

The Rev. Dr. Shannon Spencer, who opened the cafe through the nonprofit Asheville Poverty Initiative, puts it simply: “It’s not what we serve, it’s who we serve.”

Apparently, that changes everything. When you help people who have nothing, you become a “shelter,” and the city tries to shut you down.

The excuse is that there’s a school nearby and people have found some used needles in the area. So, the cries of, “Save the children!” begin, as though no people who suffer from addiction should be allowed to travel in circles that come within a few hundred yards of a school or church.

The trouble began when a group of itinerant people came through, enjoyed lunch and then set up camp in the side yard of the cafe.

The television news came in and interviewed tourists across the street at Sunny Point Cafe, and the tourists didn’t like looking at poor people while they were on vacation.

So, the local newspaper jumped on board to do a story and no one spoke to anyone from the cafe, even though there’s someone there who can speak every single weekday from about 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. The story just said no one was available for comment.

When I worked as a reporter, the story would be held until someone could speak for the cafe. We didn’t print one-sided stories without several attempts to speak to someone. I have encountered public officials who refused to return calls, and in those cases, the stories that ran detailed attempts to reach someone — “So-and-So did not return seven calls to his office, three to his home and six to his mobile phone over the course of three days.” This one would have read, “We tried to call 12 Baskets at 6 p.m. one night.”

So, viewers and readers are left with the impression that homeless people are doing drugs in the yard, that neighbors are at wits’ end with the chaos and cafe staff are allowing it, when the reality is that our neighbors support us. Some bring us food from their gardens, others come in and enjoy a meal.

The problem here is that we live in a society that drives people into poverty with low wages and few worker protections and then vilifies them.

Many of the people who eat at the cafe are working; some have disabilities that keep them from working. A number of them are in recovery from addiction, and some are still using.

Every one of them is human. Every one of them deserves the dignity of a good meal and human contact.

If we’re a community center when working people eat with us, but an illegally operating shelter when our patrons are poor, the problem isn’t with us, it’s with the community.

If you want to know more about the cafe, come have lunch with us. The food comes from some of the best restaurants in town, from EarthFare, Mission Hospital and others. We seem to specialize in curry dishes from Indian restaurants’ buffets, but we have fresh fruits and vegetables, breads, muffins, pasta dishes … it’s different every day, and it’s all delicious.

What’s more, the company is wonderful. Just because people don’t have homes doesn’t mean they don’t deserve respect and human contact.

The name 12 Baskets, by the way, comes from the story of Jesus feeding the multitudes from 12 baskets of fish and bread.

Yeah, if you have to ask what Jesus would do, the answer is in our name. He took 12 baskets of food and fed 6,000 because they were hungry. He didn’t ask whether they could pay, he just fed them.

 

 

Fight poverty, not the poor

If I hear another person tell me poor people need to get a job, I may become violent — or at least verbally abusive.

Did you know most poor people who can work, do? Did you know that the vast majority of jobs being created in this economy are low-wage and part-time?

There was no real recovery after the meltdown of 2008. What there was, was a reset that took away most of the last of the living-wage jobs and left us with jobs that don’t pay the bills and don’t offer benefits like vacation, sick days, health insurance, disability insurance, a pension or 401K plan …

So, when a few people began camping outside 12 Baskets Cafe here in Asheville, the local (Sinclair Broadcasting) television station interviewed people and broadcast a story that seemed designed to stir people up.

Across the street from 12 Baskets Cafe (which the news station called 12 baskets) is Sunny Point Cafe, a real magnet for tourists because it serves local food prepared really well.

So, the WLOS TV “news” crew interviewed tourists, who knew nothing about 12 Baskets Cafe. The tourists, of course, don’t want to look at poor people in their vacation spot.

“Oh,” they say, “these people are bathing and sleeping right there by the road, where we can see them!”

The TV “news” reports that “12 baskets … gives food to homeless people.”

Wrong. 12 Baskets Cafe rescues food from restaurants, grocery stores and caterers and serves it, restaurant style and free of charge, to everyone who comes. And not everyone who comes is homeless.

The people who live and work in the neighborhood support the cafe, no matter what the “news” tells you. People stop by often with food from their gardens. One woman brings fresh flowers every week.

12 Baskets Cafe is a place where everyone is treated with the basic dignity that should be offered to every human being. Just walk into the space and see people looking after each other’s children, people enjoying conversation with others they’re meeting for the first time. The volunteers who serve and clean up are encouraged to sit down and enjoy a meal and good company.

This is a positive space, a loving place, and the food is good. People were paying $10 a plate for it the day before.

In a time when some 40 percent of food is thrown away, no one, no one, should go hungry.

Part of the problem here is that the powers that be would love us to think there isn’t enough to go around, so perhaps we won’t realize they’re pillaging our resources while more than 140 million Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck, just one check away from financial disaster.

Well, there is enough to go around. There is an abundance.

What we all need to understand is that poverty is a political construct. When you send all the money to the top 1 percent, nothing trickles down.

Economic science shows that money given to the wealthy is stashed away, hoarded, because they don’t have to spend it. On the other hand, every dollar spent on food stamps generates $1.73 in the economy (https://www.cbpp.org/research/food-assistance/snap-boosts-retailers-and-local-economies).

When you give low-wage people money, they spend it on necessities. When you give rich people money, they stash it in an offshore account.

When you deny people a living wage in exchange for a week’s work, they become homeless, sick and hungry. It really is that simple.

Homeless people aren’t lazy or morally inferior. They’re people like you and me who have been forced into poverty by bad public policy.

Perhaps it’s time to change the policy-makers so we can have enough food, a living wage, decent public education, health care and affordable, safe housing for everyone.

 

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