Reprinted from the Tucson Weekly, September 1, 2005                   

Food, clothing and shelter might be three basic necessities of life, but what if poverty mandates that one must choose between them? That daunting task often confronts tens of thousands of poor households in Tucson, forcing them to make very difficult decisions.
Southern Arizona Community Diaper Bank director Cheryl Smith recalls one mother who was in such a predicament. “She told me she could either buy food or diapers,” Smith recalls, “so she was using towels on her baby.”

To assist people in similar situations, Smith’s organization last year distributed 600,000 diapers through 70 different agencies to 27,000 individuals. But, she says, the total demand was for 2 million diapers.

“I would like to give up to a one-week supply,” Smith indicates of the diapers provided to those who benefit from the bank. “But people usually only get 15 to 30 diapers as an emergency supply.”

Reflecting on those her agency helps, Smith stresses most are poor working families. Because of that, she says, many of them are caught in a Catch-22.

“If they don’t have diapers,” Smith says, “teen moms, or working mothers trying to support a family, can’t take their child to day care.” Because the diaper bank can assist, Smith says with satisfaction: “So our agency is one way to try and help those who are really trying to get on their own two feet.”

Once they are out of diapers, children can face enormous peer pressure about their clothes and school supplies. If they live in poverty, it can prove to be truly disheartening.

Kim Crooks, of Open Inn Inc., remembers that, unknown to her parents, one 6-year old girl from a poor family wasn’t attending school. When asked why, she told them she didn’t have a cool enough backpack or shoes.

To help out in cases like that, Open Inn operates a central-city clothing bank from which families and independent youngsters can select new or used items along with furniture and school supplies. Farther east, Our Town Family Center provides the same clothing service for young adults and older people, using donated materials.

Dealing exclusively with new clothes and supplies through its “Operation School Bell,” the Assistance League of Tucson focuses on kindergartners through fifth-graders from low-income neighborhoods. Last year, it helped clothe and provide supplies to 3,500 children, and spokeswoman Aloise Brown calls the experience “just awesome.”

Beginning on Sept. 6, the League will once again bring supervised children to their store on North Alvernon Way to “shop.” Brown says they get to choose two tops and bottoms, six sets of underwear, shoes and a backpack along with obtaining personal grooming items. “It will make you just cry,” she says of helping the children.

But Brown also points out some problems. One, she says, is that two of the 35 schools from which students come are located near Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. “We’re having to clothe our military kids,” Brown laments.

The other issue Brown regrets is how much more the agency could do if it had additional money. “This is a huge endeavor with a budget of $204,000,” she says of “Operation School Bell,” which did get one generous individual contribution of $75,000 last year.

“We could dress so many more children but are limited by funds,” Brown continues. Plus, she adds: “We are really short of people.”

Specifically helping homeless youngsters, Youth on Their Own provides a range of services, including a clothing bank. Last year, 579 people were involved with the program, and Laura Hayden of the agency expects even more this school year.

Offering new or gently used and washed clothes donated by the community, the bank’s greatest need is for good jackets, vests, and sweat pants, Hayden says. She also indicates new socks and underpants are a necessity.

“We’re seeing lots of kids pick white shirts and black pants,” she notes of the clothing selected from the bank, “because they are looking for (restaurant) wait jobs.”

Hayden also says of the clothes in general made available to program participants: “It helps so they can go to school everyday and not have to wear the same pair of pants.”

A shortage in the bank, Hayden says, is for infant clothing. “One need of ours that is increasing,” she emphasizes, “is baby clothes for teen parents. We don’t get anywhere near what we could use in that area.”

Despite that, Hayden declares, clothing is not the major problem facing homeless youth in Tucson. That dubious distinction, she stresses, is housing.

Living in poverty forces difficult decisions between food, clothing and shelter. In Arizona, those choices are compounded when children are involved because of a lack of governmental assistance.

With Arizona child services having an overall ranking of 41st in the nation according to KidsCount, a project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, local children are at a distinct disadvantage. While nonprofit agencies try their best to make up for the shortage of governmental support for kids, as Penelope Jacks from the Children’s Action Alliance comments: “Arizona is not a child-friendly state. Our teenagers, especially, are in pretty desperate straits.”

For more information, contact: Assistance League of Tucson (326-8452); Open Inn (670-9040); Our Town Family Center (323-1708); Southern Arizona Community Diaper Bank (325-1400); Youth on Their Own (293-1136).