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.