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Published: Sunday, 12/21/2008

In new trend, need knows no boundary

For three years, Dan Creps' kids were enrolled in a school in one of Toledo's more chi-chi suburbs. But when he became the school's principal, his view changed.

"You start to see things," he said. "It's not what everybody says, 'Oh, you live out there in Perrysburg or Sylvania or whatever.' I'm not suggesting the percentage of [needy] kids we serve is as high as other areas, but they're certainly here and they're growing in number."

Call it the suburbanization of poverty.

Case in point: At Perrysburg's Woodland Elementary, where Mr. Creps is in his second year as principal, a new breakfast program got under way last month after school officials saw growing numbers of kids arrive each morning hungry.

"They'd show up at the nurse's office complaining of stomach cramps, or just not feeling well. And often when we asked, 'Did you have breakfast?' the answer came up no."

This southern suburb, known for its grand old riverfront houses and McMansion subdivisions, is just one of Toledo's surrounding 'burbs where evidence of the battered economy ripples ever more widely.

Calls to the United Way's referral hot line from hungry Perrysburg residents climbed 154 percent over last year. Rossford food calls were up 128 percent; Swanton, 125 percent; Holland, 135 percent, and in Maumee, 61 percent.

Sylvania's food calls were unchanged, but the percentage of people from that northwestern suburb seeking help with heating costs climbed this year by 48 percent. Perrysburg's utility calls jumped 20 percent ; Rossford, 60 percent; Swanton, 86 percent; Holland, 198 percent, and Maumee, 164 percent.

"For so long, people thought poverty was an inner-city thing," said Bill Kitson, head of the United Way, where hot-line statistics make it clear that poverty is seeping well beyond the urban core.

But to Mr. Kitson, the shift is more than geographic. He fears some families may be falling into poverty without even realizing it.

"We're seeing need increase in places where it hasn't before [and among] families that aren't used to working through the system. This is not an issue of generational poverty, but an issue of communities at real distress levels."

Take home-heating costs. For families living paycheck to paycheck, one month's hefty gas bill might initially be regarded as something to juggle.

"Our [aid] systems are built to reach people in the inner city, and to reach them quickly. If you're in a suburban community and you keep waiting [to pay the heat bill] because you're going to figure it out and come up with the solution, there are few programs that can help you when you're three months behind in your utilities. In fact, I'd say there are no programs for that."

While suburban requests for United Way's 211 hot-line referrals show eye-popping percentage increases, Mr. Kitson acknowledged the actual numbers aren't huge.

"The reality is that 51,743 calls came from Toledo and 500 from Perrysburg this year. OK, I get it: Perrysburg's not falling off the ledge today. But the numbers are going up and they're going to keep going up. And are we prepared to help suburban families? I'm not convinced we are."

At Perrysburg's Woodland Elementary School, when school nurse Laurie Barteck and other staffers began to notice children showing up hungry, they'd probe a little deeper.

"We'd ask them when was the last time they had something to eat," said the principal, Mr. Creps, "and sometimes they said it was the previous day, at lunch here at school. And that started to be more frequent."

While Woodland's breakfast and lunch programs are not just for students who need subsidy, Mr. Creps said about half the kids who eat the morning meal do qualify for free or reduced-cost meals. At lunchtime, nearly 15 percent of the students are eligible. Kids in line pay by punching in a key code, so no one can tell who's subsidized and who's not.

Woodland Elementary also has a separate foundation, set up to help needy students' families provide holiday meals and even such basics as coats. For the first time ever, said Mr. Creps, this year the foundation cannot meet demand.

The United Way's Mr. Kitson, who is a member of the governor's new anti-poverty task force, predicts that too many families are unprepared for the hardships awaiting them.

"In the past, you'd be the only one in your family, so the family could rally around and help you. I think today, many in the family will have such issues and won't be able to help one another."



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