One Soup Kitchen Copes With Recession's Aftershocks

Volunteers at the First United Methodist Church say they only wish they could do more to help the hungry and the homeless in Evanston.

By Emma Soberano
Medill-Northwestern Journalism Institute

It’s 6 p.m. on a Thursday, and the in Evanston is packed. Area residents of all ages, backgrounds and ethnicities are gathered in the chapel, seated at tables covered in green cloths, to eat soup and bread served by volunteers.

While the darkest days of the economic crisis seem to be behind us, unemployment levels remain high throughout the country. In Evanston, the unemployment rate in March was 6.3 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor website. The national poverty rate is 15.1 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau website. That leaves some 46.2 million Americans below the poverty line.

On a bench outside United Methodist Church, under heavy storm clouds, Stephen Jones, 39, rolls a cigarette. Jones immigrated from Wales 12 years ago and has been homeless for seven. He works in construction, but because he is not a citizen, he says, his economic chances in the United States have been severely limited.

“I can’t cash a check, I can’t vote. I can’t do anything. I work hard,” he says.

Still, he counts himself lucky in some ways.

“I’m not oppressed, I don’t live in a dangerous country," he says. "I’m free to go to church.”

Tom Scott has been volunteering at the church’s soup kitchen the first Thursday of each month for seven years. Scott, 65, an Evanston insurance executive, says that from 2008, he noticed attendance at the soup kitchen rose about  20 percent. Recently, he says, the number has decreased almost to pre-recession levels. However, Scott doesn’t think the economy has returned to normal.

“I think (working here) has made me more attuned to the economic situation of people who are struggling at the margins,” says Scott. 

Scott says that although he feels the kitchen does a good job of covering the “really raw basics,” he wishes the church could do more. As rain begins to pour, Scott seeks cover in the church. Providing shelter would be another way to help, he adds.

Northwestern University Associate Chaplain Wendy Mathewson, 37, says she and a group of volunteers, mainly students, plan to help at a nearby soup kitchen soon. “I see students wanting to give back and address some of the ways that people are suffering in this economical crisis,” she says.

But the recession has hit the students, as well, Mathewson says. Because it is getting harder for students to find work, more are volunteering to make an impact on the community. “I think that for a lot of students, doing some sort of volunteer program is more of an option than it might have been when times were booming,” she says.

Jones and Scott have also noted the effects of the recession on those with higher incomes.

“You know, the economy didn’t just work on people in lower-income brackets,” says Scott, who said he has seen a decrease in church donations. “It affected people in all income brackets.”

Jones says he has seen the economy’s darkest side.

“I had a friend who tried to commit suicide earlier this year because he was losing his wealth,” Jones said. “He wasn’t thankful for what he’s got.”


Emma Soberano is a high school student from California participating in a five-week journalism program with Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism.

Richard Schulte July 19, 2012 at 01:08 PM
The best way to help those in need, such as Stephen Jones, is to revive the economy. How do we do that? That's easy. It should be obviouis to everyone now that Obamanomics is a failure. In the early 1980's, a Republican president working with a Democrat Congress was able to revive the economy. How? Tax cuts and less government regulation. Democrats tell us that we need to raise taxes on tobacco products to discourage people from smoking. Raising taxes on tobacco products does indeed discourage the use of tobacco products. If high taxes on tobacco means less tobacco use, then what does high taxes on economic activity mean? The exact same thing. If we want less economic activity, increase taxes. If we want more economic activity, lower taxes. It's just common sense and quite obvious. Mr. Jones, I work in the construction industry too. I lost my home in Evanston in February and was homeless too. Hang in there, help is on the way in the form of the elections in November. If the American people are wise enough to choose former Governor Romney, the economy will improve almost immediately. If the American people are dumb enough to re-elect President Obama, the recession will continue for 4 more years. In the event that Obama is re-elected, I would suggest that you relocate to Canada. If you want to help the homeless and those that have fallen on hard times, vote for (conservative) Republicans. TEA.
Sully July 19, 2012 at 09:38 PM
You may want to try investing in a brain, Mr. Shulte.
Richard Schulte July 19, 2012 at 10:07 PM
Sully, a brilliant comment. You're logic is just overwhelming. Raise taxes on tobacco, less tobacco use. Raise taxes on economic activity, get less economic activity. Lower taxes on economic activity, get more economic activity. Common sense. More economic activity helps everyone, even those in the construction industry, like Mr. Jones and Schulte. Hang in there Mr. Jones, President-elect Mitt will fix this economic mess between election day and inaguration day. It's easy-hell a stray cat could figure out what to do.
John July 20, 2012 at 04:21 AM
While perhaps inappropriate, I'm forced to agree with Sully's premise. Sorry, Mr. Schulte. I certainly don't agree with the his presentation of said premise. I'm no economist, and I won't claim to know anything about economics, but I do know argument and debate, and your argument hinges on a common logical fallacy called "equivocation". Equivocation is best summed up with the expression "if A = B and B = C, then A = C", and while this is true in mathematics, it isn't in dialectic. Your parallel between taxes on tobacco and the economy AND your parallel between a past political climate and one that you hope for both are prey to equivocation, and therefore cannot really be trusted. While your "common sense" argument might seem initially appealing and logical, things are rarely so simple. Also, great article, Emma. This is some very professional journalism you're doing.


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