VISTA members work to combat poverty in Cassopolis areaPublished 10:27am Wednesday, November 25, 2009
By KATIE JOHNSON
Niles Daily Star
CASSOPOLIS – Bob Argue’s experiences with unemployment and poverty inspired him to reach out to others in those situations.
“I had been out of work for the previous three years,” he said. “I didn’t see many people reaching out.”
Argue, of Benton Harbor, is one of three AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) members – including Kimberly Lee-Brown, of Cassopolis, and Leah Hunt, of Kalamazoo – working in the Cassopolis area to fight poverty. The group organized the annual “Cassopolis Project Homeless Connect Event: A Day of Dignity for the Homeless” Tuesday at the Cass District Library. Several nonprofit agencies were on hand to explain what services they can offer the homeless or near homeless, which Lee-Brown said is the case for many.
“I think maybe they’re one paycheck away,” she said.
The turnout, however, was very low this year, the VISTA members said, attributing it to the Thanksgiving week.
Some agencies, particularly the Southwest Michigan Community Action Agency, are available to those in poverty but often not used. The Action Agency, for example, offers weatherization, rental and foreclosure assistance. Others on hand Tuesday included Tri-County Headstart, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and Angel Food of Cass County.
“We thought we would have all the organizations in one building,” Lee-Brown said.
The main job of the three VISTA workers – who are paid at poverty level – is to provide free income tax filing services. They work in Berrien, Cass and Van Buren counties.
“There were times when that (tax) return they got kept them in their homes a couple months,” Argue said.
Lee-Brown, a native of Cassopolis, said poverty is an increasingly concerning problem as unemployment rises.
“It’s bad,” Lee-Brown said. “For me, I see it a lot more with people losing their jobs. You wouldn’t think it could be this bad in Cassopolis.”
“It’s just astonishing,” said Hunt, who has lived in bigger cities.
Argue said he is planning a poverty simulation for Kalamazoo, “giving people like HR managers or teachers an idea of what it’s like to live a month in poverty.”
The VISTA workers, who are in their second year or potentially three, said their jobs are heartwarming, and worth every minute.
“It does your heart good to give back,” Lee-Brown said.
It’s “very touching,” Hunt said, describing a time when they gave a mother infant Tylenol for her child, the gesture making her cry.
“It’s just the most inspirational, wonderful thing I’ve ever done,” Hunt said.
Homelessness in Michigan
Homeless persons per 10,000 22 28
Percent of chronically homeless people 18 9
Total homeless veterans 153,584 4,825
Source: National Alliance to End Homelessness