On the Breadline

UPDATED 11/29/1982 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 11/29/1982 at 01:00 AM EST

As Americans gather together this week for the annual Thanksgiving feast, there are widespread reports of hunger among Americans who last year at this time enjoyed plenty. Today 11.5 million workers—10.5 percent of the work force—are unemployed, the highest number since 1940. This year's new jobless are a different breed from the traditional poor, the drifters and street people who depend chronically on charity. Many are middle-class, professional men and women who have never been out of work before, and for whom reduced circumstances bring entirely unfamiliar problems. "They do not know how to beg," says the Rev. Charles B. Woodrich, a priest who has worked with the poor for decades. "The children look at you and hope you won't turn them down. The parents are ashamed to ask."

Woodrich's parish is in the heart of Denver, a boom town by current U.S. standards, a city whose relative affluence and recession-resistant economy make the notion of middle-class hunger particularly grotesque. Yet here, where it is most unthinkable, it is most irrefutably a fact. Drawn by an official unemployment rate of 6.8 percent, less than most American cities, the jobless have flocked to Denver from all over the country, only to find that its light manufacturing and high-tech companies have no work to offer. Since the newcomers are not counted in local unemployment figures, the jobless rate remains low. But to Father Woodrich, who has run a sandwich line at his Church of the Holy Ghost six days a week for the past 10 years, the statistics matter little. "When we started we had 20 standing in line, then 30, then 50," he says. "Now on some days we get 400." Last year Woodrich's staff of volunteers handed out 96,000 sandwiches at a cost of $90,000; this year they will give an estimated 130,000 and spend more than $135,000. Once their clientele was comprised mainly of winos, bums; this year Wood-rich sees more and more "educated guys" in line. "Some of them have become dirty and grubby, but you see some well-dressed men too. They just have no work."

Anticipating a hard winter and burgeoning numbers of cold and homeless people in Denver, Woodrich two weeks ago secured more space in a former Catholic high school nearby. With a $50,000 grant from the diocese, he has equipped it with beds for 150, and the facilities can be stretched to accommodate 250, the fire law limit, in a pinch. The building has showers, washing machines, a kitchen turning out hot meals, a special section for women and children and a clothing exchange. Woodrich and a small army of volunteers have transformed the school, which was closed because of a dearth of inner-city students, into the Samaritan Shelter, as homelike an environment as such an institution can be, complete with hanging plants and Norman Rockwell prints. Where is the money coming from to maintain such a facility? "I don't know or care," he says. Donations just seem to roll in.

The need for such a shelter became apparent last winter. On Feb. 3, when the temperature dropped to 10 below zero, he opened the church to the city's homeless for the first time. That night, he remembers, "even before the nocturnal devotions were over, 15 men were sleeping like dead bodies in the pews, and others were waiting outside." When one of his parishioners objected to the smell that the sleepers left in the Romanesque church, Woodrich lighted the incense pots and lambasted complainers from the pulpit: "If you are looking for a sterilized clientele to come into the church, then you are in the wrong church. You can't pray to the Lord and reject the ones He loved most."

One of Woodrich's workers at Samaritan Shelter is Mark Vermaat, 23, an unemployed welder from Cotter, Ark. who had been crisscrossing the country from Arkansas to California and Texas to Minnesota since he lost his job a year ago. Riding the rails after his motorcycle broke down, he took whatever jobs he could find—working in an Oklahoma oil field, digging graves in Texas—and then moved on. "I went back to Arkansas for two weeks to get my Harley running again, but then I couldn't afford it," he says, "so I hopped a freight for Houston. I can't go back to Arkansas. There's nothing there."

Three weeks ago Vermaat turned up in the Holy Ghost chow line for the bologna and cheese sandwiches and fruit that are dispensed. Woodrich spotted him and, after questioning him for a while, invited him back. "I told him I might be able to get a job for him. The next day he was waiting for me. I knew then that he was not a con artist, that he was really willing to work." The priest gave him a job getting the shelter ready, put him up in a hotel, and bought him some jeans and a T-shirt. The change in Vermaat, after he had cleaned up, slept in a bed and had some solid food, was striking. Vermaat now earns $160 per week as a maintenance man at the shelter.

Rudolf Schmut, 52, is no longer enjoying the good life. A chemical engineer who traces his lineage to an aristocratic Austrian family, he lived an affluent life on both sides of the Atlantic before becoming a naturalized American. He speaks of the cars he used to drive ("always a Mercedes"), his $1,500 Longines wristwatch, the Bronzini neckties, the snakeskin shoes, the Brooks Brothers dinner jackets, and recalls vacations on Cape Cod and in the Austrian Alps. Returning to the U.S. in August 1981, after six years in Europe and Syria, where he was the project manager for a $100 million pulp-and-paper complex, he took a temporary one-semester job as lecturer on chemical engineering at Cal State in Long Beach that fall. Then, as he tells it, his world collapsed, and Schmut has not held a regular job since.

Last January, at Stapleton International Airport in Denver, he suffered a nearly fatal heart attack. "After three months in the hospital," he says, "I was released. I was flat broke. I am still flat broke." Because he worked out of the country for more than five years, he is ineligible for unemployment benefits. "I lived in crash pads for $5 a night—places where you have to brush the cockroaches off the bed."

Despite his problems, Schmut remains savvy. "You meet a few people," he says. "When I called the KNUS radio hotline, three listeners called in and each lent me $100." That enabled him to move out of the fleabag into a spartan apartment. "With $80 I bought some second-hand furniture. Right now I'm two and a half months behind in my rent, and the second eviction warning just arrived. I'm living hand to mouth, but I'll not give up." He has learned where to get free meals without having to endure a sermon first. "I can go to the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception for breakfast, the Church of the Holy Ghost for a sandwich lunch, and, perhaps, the Salvation Army for supper. Some weekends I just don't eat."

Still fastidious about his grooming, Schmut says, "I spend my time chasing down jobs, so I have to keep up appearances. Recently I had an eight-week laundry accumulation. I borrowed $2 for the Laundromat." He has learned that he can get his hair trimmed for 25 cents and his beard for 10 cents at the Emily Griffith Opportunity School, a technical school that offers courses in barbering.

Schmut says he has filed 248 job applications without a nibble. "There is prejudice. If you're over 40, they won't hire you. But there has been a turnaround. Half a year ago people didn't bother to reply to your applications. Now they all reply. They are fishing for people to fill future jobs." Last month, Schmut says, he received a letter about a possible faculty position at Oregon State University. "I hope you are still interested," the letter read. "Please write, and I will respond promptly." Ironically, it had been written in January, mailed to him in Austria, and took nine months to catch up to him. Still, Schmut shrugs, things could be worse. "I remember, after the German occupation of Austria, I received a loaf of bread for my 16th birthday. I cut it into 21 slices, so it would last me for three weeks. Compared with those days, I'm well off."

The Gutierrez family—Richard, 38, his wife, Charlotte, 31, and their five children—are not so optimistic. Richard has been out of work for most of the past two years, and after the Gutierrezes arrived in Denver from their hometown, Trinidad, Colo., they were penniless and homeless. The enterprising Charlotte called various charities and found their present home, a seedy, almost bare two-bedroom bungalow, through the United Way. Catholic Charities will pay the rent for 40 days. Because of the children, the Gutierrezes qualify for enough food stamps to pay for the family groceries. And Charlotte has found a part-time job as a domestic in a nursing home, a situation that embarrasses her. "I've worked before as a waitress," she says, "but never as a maid." Still, she says, "You take what you can find." When Charlotte is at work, Richard baby-sits. When she is at home, he looks for a job. On weekends the family sits around the plastic dining table and plays cards or, if Richard can raise the money for gasoline, goes for a ride in its battered 1960 Rambler. "My wife and I play rummy and the older kids play war." The children cavort like puppies around the unfurnished rooms. "That's what they do all the time," says Richard. "They haven't got anything else to do."

Until 1981 Gutierrez made a comfortable living driving a beer truck. Then, after being laid off, he was employed briefly as a superintendent in an apartment building. He lost that job when the management changed. "Since then," he says, "I've just had an occasional odd job, working the labor pools as a temporary."

With cold weather setting in, the plight of the newly needy will become more acute. "I foresee catastrophe this winter," says Father Woodrich. "We're going to have people starving and freezing to death. If we, the churches, don't act soon and stop making excuses, we are going to have the military guarding the supermarkets."

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