Friday, May 15, 2009

A sad sign o' the times; food banks hiring security

In a sad sign of the times, violent incidents have increased at US food banks. With the big increase in need brought on by the global recession, people waiting in line for food will sometimes cut in line forcibly when they think the food will run out. This has forced food banks to hire security to keep the peace.

From the newspaper for Seattle homeless called the Real Change News, writer Cydney Gillis profiles a security guard and the food bank he works for.

Sgt. Dwaine Coverson stands outside the back door of a Wallingford office building, cracking sunflower seeds as he talks about a new part-time job that’s a sign of bad times in Seattle.

Coverson is retired. He spent 29 years with the Seattle police force and says he’d rather be golfing. But three days a week, he shows up at the FamilyWorks Food Bank and Resource Center to keep things orderly in the line — and break up fights.

Thursday before last, Coverson says, he had to break up a fistfight that erupted in the building’s lobby, then separate another set of combatants who were pepper-spraying each other outside the back door. The same day, he says, Seattle police were called after a man threatened one of the workers at the Seattle Public Library branch that shares the building at 45th Street and Woodlawn Avenue.

Over the winter months, says FamilyWorks Director Jake Weber, incidents like these shot up, leading staff to feel unsafe and the food bank and its upstairs landlord —anti-poverty agency Solid Ground (the former Fremont Public Association) — to hire Coverson in January. Though he’s retired, he maintains his certification to wear the uniform, which comes with full police powers and a 9mm Beretta handgun that make him a curiosity to three small children staring through the glass in the lobby.

At least a few food bank clients say they find the officer unnecessary and intimidating. But FamilyWorks isn’t alone. As the recession and layoffs have driven more people to food banks citywide — the individuals served by FamilyWorks skyrocketed 80 percent last year, from 1,937 in 2007 to 3,405 in 2008 — lines, wait times and angst about getting the day’s best pick of food have increased. This has led to jostling and altercations at some facilities, particularly those where clients spend hours waiting outside or in cramped quarters.

To quell incidents, Northwest Harvest’s Cherry Street Food Bank on First Hill hired three security guards in early April. And after negotiating a “good neighbor agreement” with nearby residents, the Ballard Food Bank hired a security guard two years ago and, in March, chose to shut down its meal program at Calvary Lutheran Church over behavioral issues.

The Cherry Street Food Bank set an all-time record in April, serving 2,651 people in a single day, says Claire Acey, a spokesperson for Northwest Harvest. That compares to an average of 1,800 clients a day last year. On the busiest days, and toward the end of the month as disability and Social Security checks run out, Acey says, people will start lining up around 6 a.m. for the food bank’s opening at 9 a.m.

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