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Published: Thursday, 10/1/2009

Census Bureau report lists Toledo in Top 10 of downtrodden in 2008

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The face of America's poverty now has fresh numbers to go with it.

They show Toledo was the nation's eighth-poorest city in 2008, with nearly one of every four of its residents living below the poverty line.

But no government statistic loomed larger than the sight of a tired and hungry 3-year-old Chelsey Escamilla eagerly gobbling up a lunch yesterday afternoon in the Good Samaritan Outreach Center at 1108 Broadway St., while huddled next to her father, Mike Escamilla, 29, of South Toledo.

Her dad is a carpeting and flooring installer who hasn't worked in almost two years.

He said he's trying, but contractors aren't getting nearly the number of home improvement jobs they used to get. He's low on the seniority chain, making it harder for him to pick up hours.

Alejandro Dominguez, 41, of East Toledo, used to work in construction but was sidelined by a back injury. ‘I just put my faith in God,' he said yesterday at Cherry Street Ministries.   Alejandro Dominguez, 41, of East Toledo, used to work in construction but was sidelined by a back injury. ‘I just put my faith in God,' he said yesterday at Cherry Street Ministries.
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Mr. Escamilla quietly said it's "hard to say" how Toledo got into its predicament and has no solutions for its economic mess. All he knows is that he and Chelsey are two of the many faces in America's expanding crowd of people in need of services.

"Makes you want to cry," whispers Ken Leslie, founder of Toledo's annual Tent City event for the homeless.

But Mr. Leslie knows as well as anyone that it's not all that of an unusual sight.

More and more, people from all walks of life and all age groups are struggling to make ends meet, even if they aren't joining the ranks of Toledo's homeless.

Lucas County Job and Family Services Director Deb Ortiz-Flores is another person who has become all too familiar with the effects of Toledo's downtrodden economy.

"We have 800 people through our doors on any given day. There's always a crowd of people in our waiting room looking for help," Ms. Ortiz-Flores said.

Her agency recently served a woman who arrived with two barefooted children. Their mother said she couldn't afford to buy them shoes.

"I'm worried about the upcoming months, with the cold weather coming," Ms. Ortiz-Flores said. "It's very challenging. I think people are real fearful."

The latest U.S. Census Bureau figures do little to dispel those fears.

They show 24.7 percent of Toledo living below the poverty line at the end of 2008, a statistic that very well could be worse now given that the economic crisis deepened nationally during the first half of 2009.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines the poverty line as $22,050 a year or less for a family of four in the 48 contiguous states, or $10,830 for a single person. Alaska and Hawaii are the only two states with separate guidelines, both of which are slightly higher.

Ohio was the only state with multiple cities in the Top 10 for poverty rates last year. Cleveland was ranked second, with Cincinnati seventh. Detroit was No. 1.

Ms. Ortiz-Flores said she is not surprised by Toledo's eighth-place ranking. She said the number of people her agency serves has been on the rise.

"Our agency's supposed to be the safety net for people and, unfortunately, what we have isn't enough to meet the need. The services we provide are not enough. The community has fewer and fewer resources," she said.

Similar observations were made by Jane Moore, executive vice president of United Way of Greater Toledo, and United Way spokesman Kelli Kreps.

Of 4,325 calls placed in August to the United Way's 211 hotline, nearly one of every four - or 1,069 - were for assistance with utility payments. Another 655 were for food, with 354 for rent payment assistance and 218 for shelter, Ms. Moore said.

The total number of calls from January through August of this year was 29,000, up 3,000 from the 26,000 logged during the same time frame in 2008. Calls from Wood County alone have more than doubled, Ms. Kreps said.

"A lot of people are first-time callers," Ms. Moore said. "There's a new group of people who don't know how to access service and that's a group we have a real concern about."

Matt Brace, a 49-year-old former Point Place resident who now resides at the Cherry Street Mission, said his life changed abruptly after losing his $25-an-hour job at GM Powertrain last year. He said he had been there seven years.

He said he has picked up part-time work as a custodian at a Sylvania Township auto shop, but - like many people lucky enough to get part-time work - he said he doesn't get enough hours.

"The way you have to look at it is that the Good Ol' Days are over here," Mr. Brace said.

Conversations with several homeless, unemployed, and underemployed people in the Toledo area suggested that a general frustration exists with how Mayor Carty Finkbeiner, Toledo city councilmen, and the Toledo school board have spent taxpayer money in recent years.

At the community center on Madison Avenue operated by Cherry Street Mission Ministries, several people said the competition for jobs is so brutal that it's easy to get discouraged.

"It's a joke to have job fairs when there are no jobs," Chris Williams, one of the center's service coordinators and security guards, said.

As Toledo's hard luck continues, a greater sense of desperation will sink in - possibly leading to more crime, he said.

Alejandro Dominguez, 41, of East Toledo, said he knows times are tough by the infrequency of jobs his brother-in-law gets as a roofing contractor.

"I just put my faith in God," said Mr. Dominguez, who added that he used to work in construction but no longer does because of a back injury. "We've got to put our hands in God's."

For Reginald Hubert, 37, Toledo seemed like a place for a fresh start.

He said he moved to the Glass City from Defiance three months ago because he thought he would have an easier time finding work. His hours had been reduced to one shift a week as a pizzeria cook.

Now, after failing to find work in Toledo, he's making plans to move to Dallas. A sister who lives there believes he will have more success in Texas.

At the Mildred Bayer Clinic for the Homeless, 2101 Jefferson Ave., Frederick Harris and Michael Gibson had differing views on Toledo's ranking.

Mr. Harris, 57, is being treated for multiple health problems, including diabetes, an ulcer, and problems with his legs and feet. A lifelong Toledoan, he wouldn't be adverse to moving - but can't.

"I want to get away, but where do you go when you're broke?" he asked.

Mr. Gibson, 46, said he is an ex-con who served time in prison for a robbery conviction.

He said he is determined to find a job and improve his status in life, no matter what obstacles he faces in a sour economy with a felony on his record.

"If you look on a continuous basis, something's going to open up. It may not be what you want, but it's a job," Mr. Gibson said. "I've got that [felony conviction] going against me, but I don't let that stop me. For me to say I can't get a job, that's a cop out."

Contact Tom Henry at:

thenry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6079.



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