West Virginia’s Working Poor

By: Hilary Kinney, Egill Karlsson, Madalyn LaMastro, Simone Benson, and Zach Hohn

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Manna Meal, a “no questions asked” soup kitchen in Charleston, W.Va., opens its doors to all area citizens in need.

Manna Meal serves breakfast and lunch everyday. Breakfast is served from 8 to 9 a.m. Monday through Sunday, while lunch is served 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 12:30 to 2 p.m. on Sunday.

According to Kay Albright, outreach coordinator at Manna Meal, the soup kitchen’s visitors come from many different backgrounds and walks of life.

“Our homeless population is a lot less, and our working poor are a lot more.”

While it is a common misunderstanding that many welfare recipients in the United States are “lazy” or “cheating the system,” that is far from the truth. In fact, the Center on Budget Policy Priorities reports 80 percent of current Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients in the U.S. are working or will work within a year. Many employed people find that they need assistance from the government despite their steady incomes. And many of them also rely on charitable groups, soup kitchens and food pantries.

In 2013 the majority of households receiving SNAP had at least one individual who worked within the previous 12 months. (Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture)

Some individuals stop by Manna Meal for breakfast or lunch before heading out for their own job searches. Ron Keeling, 57, of Charleston, W.Va., spends his week working part time as a seasonal associate at Macy’s. After his shift, he goes to bed at the Roark-Sullivan Lifeway Center, a temporary shelter for homeless men in the Charleston area. He visits Manna Meal for food when he needs it.

On Nov. 4, Keeling finished his bowl of off-brand Honey Nut Cheerios at breakfast, surrounded by some of his fellow shelter-mates. That day he planned on visiting WorkForce West Virginia, an agency with employment resources for citizens.

“You know, I lived in middle class almost my entire life, except for this last five or six months when I lost my job and wasn’t able to pay rent” Keeling said.

He was surprised by the people he met in the shelters. Just as he had come from a stable life, he found that others had also come from working backgrounds.

“It’s been kind of eye-opening because there are several people in these homeless shelters that you would never think should be there,” Keeling said. “They’re smart, they’re well-read, they’re intelligent…you wonder ‘Why are you here?’”

Keeling grew up as an only child in a middle class family. His father was an accountant and managed money well; his parents paid off a 20-year mortgage in three years. When his father passed away in 1991, Keeling was working in a print shop.

Unfortunately, almost two decades later his mother passed away and a couple of his business investments went south, including stock value in investments he made before the 2008 recession. In 2012, Keeling was evicted from his home, and he found himself in unfamiliar territory. He was able to live with some friends until this past summer.

Since June 2016, Keeling has been without a permanent place to live.

“It’s been far, far longer than I expected,” he said.

Unlike some individuals suffering from homelessness, Keeling didn’t know poverty until he fell into it himself. Keeling said some people he met had been homeless their entire lives. But when it comes to the majority of the population that is able to support themselves, Keeling said poverty is something many don’t understand or actively try to remain informed about.

“I would say probably the vast majority of people don’t think much about it until it shows up as an article on the news or you know, something happens to somebody close to them that they know,” Keeling said. “And I will say that for those of us who have never been there, it’s much different than for people who have either grown up that way or have been part of that for a long time, because they know where to go, you know, as far as the shelter was concerned. I had to find that information.”

Keeling is not alone as a homeless, employed American. Darrelll Draper, 46, works full-time as a chef at the Charleston Marriott. Tim Farwell, 58, delivers papers for the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

Former boxer Greg “The Juice” Johnson is a U.S. veteran. Although he has benefits, he barely scrapes by, making just enough to survive.

According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, roughly 45 percent of all homeless veterans are African-American or Hispanic, despite only accounting for 10.4 percent and 3.4 percent of the U.S. veteran population, respectively.

For Johnson, saving money is important to sustain a decent living. He is homeless and receives $600 a month from Social Security, which is his only source of income.

“That little $600 a month, I don’t give it to no renter. I stay outside,” Johnson said. “I spend it on what I want to spend it on, I got friends that I stay with, and they get mad when I run out of money. ‘Greg, you got to go!’ Well it ain’t the first time, I got other friends,” Johnson said.

Individuals receiving benefits find different ways to apply this aid to their lives. When asked about some of the preconceived notions about hunger, homelessness and government benefits,, Keeling says it’s about focusing on oneself.

“I could let it make me mad … I could let it do a lot of things, but that’s just self-defeating. You know what you have to do? You know you have to buckle down, you know, you have to get back to work,” Keeling said.

“You do have to learn to take care of your emotions so they don’t take care of you. That doesn’t mean you don’t have them, that just means, you know, I can’t afford to let myself to just sit around and pout and be mad. That’s not gonna get me anywhere.”