By Mitchell Posner
I’m sure you know that we are celebrating the holiday of Shavuot at the end of May this year. But what you might not know is that the end of May concludes National Community Action Month.
If you’re wondering why I’m tying the two together, it’s because of the Book of Ruth, the megillah we read as part of this holiday service. The Book of Ruth is in part a book about chesed (lovingkindness). It illustrates a Jewish society that puts its faith beliefs into action. In the Book of Ruth, parts of the harvest are left for the poor, and compassion is shown to childless widows. At community action agencies across the country, acts such as these and so many more are performed every day all year round.
There are more than 1,200 community action agencies spread around the United States, all started in the mid-1960s as part of LBJ’s “War on Poverty.” The Community Assistance Network is the designated community action nonprofit anti-poverty organization serving our low-income neighbors throughout Baltimore County.
Each community action agency has a distinct array of services, tailored to the needs of the low-income community they serve. CAN runs programs to meet the needs of underserved Baltimore County residents, primarily in the areas of housing, food, and income stability, links to services, and skill development that builds family self-sufficiency.
In 2019, the 19 community action agency members of the Maryland Community Action Partnership provided services to 342,847 low-income people in Delaware, D.C., and Maryland. This included vulnerable populations such as seniors, people with disabilities, people without health insurance, and children. The national, regional, and local community action agency network is now innovating, expanding, and adopting our service delivery models to meet the current and anticipated COVID-19 induced demands for more assistance.
CAN served approximately 5,900 individuals in 2019. Our programs include operating the two emergency homeless shelters serving 1,700 men, women, and children and helping 78% of those shelter residents exit to permanent housing; providing eviction prevention services and down payment assistance to more than 200 families; and distributing over 600,000 pounds of food.
The Covid-19 pandemic has caused sudden job losses and furloughs (since mid-March over 65,000 Baltimore County residents have filed for unemployment insurance). Many of these families had no financial cushion to begin with and were already economically stretched to maintain their housing and afford nutritious food as well as other necessities. Suddenly, many of our constituents have faced an inability to pay their rent. One person at our shelter had just been hired at BWI but before he could start his first day was asked to return his uniform. He planned to move out of the shelter but this prolonged his stay. Another family had been living in a hotel for six months but lost their job and are now unable to pay for the motel stay. We anticipate a huge uptick in demand for our eviction prevention services once the current government-imposed moratoria are lifted.
Likewise, increasing numbers of people have found themselves unable to afford enough groceries. Baltimore County DSS received more than 22,000 applications for SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) in April 2020. They normally receive less than 4,000 applications per month.
Between March 9 and May 12, CAN saw a 40% increase in the number of visitors to our pantry compared with the same time period in 2019. Nearly 30% of our pantry visitors since March have been first-time visitors. The pre- and post-Passover food drive organized by Brett Weill for collection at Accents, Market Maven, PJC, and Suburban Orthodox (a wonderful modern illustration of leket – gleanings) was a big boost to our pantry inventory.
Keith Shapiro, the president of our board of directors, has been volunteering at the front door of CAN’s Food Pantry every day since March 9. During that period, he has handed out over 1,500 boxes of food staples along with produce, bread, milk, eggs, and more. CAN also provides a 20-lb. bag of meat and a 10-lb. bag of salvaged items such as sandwiches, cakes, pies, and other items. Keith has assisted a homeless individual who walked 10 miles to our door (we gave cab fare to get back), and a neighborhood resident in a wheelchair who left with a box on her lap, a bag on each handle, and her two children trailing behind. Dare I say Keith resembles Boaz, who cared for Naomi and Ruth?
Community action agencies like CAN depend on people and organizations like those mentioned above who put their words about social justice into concrete actions. CAN and other community action agencies offer ongoing opportunities to perform acts of chesed (lovingkindness), give tzedakah (charity), and participate in tikkun olam (repairing the world). CAN is not a faith-based organization, but we do believe in uniting as a diverse community to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless with a shared spirit of reverence.
CAN invites you to join us in celebrating this nationwide movement and acting on the local level. What better way to celebrate Shavuot!
Mitchell Posner is the executive director of Community Assistance Network, Inc.