Empty Bowls encourages community involvement

Posted: Friday, April 23, 2010

The Glory Hole is facing serious budget issues and homelessness remains an intractable problem here in Juneau, but the local shelter's annual fundraising event, Empty Bowls, held this Sunday at Centennial Hall, is not without celebratory elements.

For one, it calls attention to the positive changes the Glory Hole and its supporters have brought about through their efforts. For another, it highlights the broad potential for community cooperation in addressing issues of hunger and homelessness.

"I think we do good work, so I really want to have people see what we do," said Glory Hole Executive Director Mariya Lovishchuk. "Also, (Empty Bowls) is about getting the community to own the homeless and hungry problem."

One of the accomplishments the Glory Hole and other local service organizations can be proud of is that in Juneau, immediate hunger needs can be met.

"Even though you might not have money, you might be destitute, or you might be homeless because you can't get housing - because we really do have a housing issue - at least we as a community, through the Glory Hole, through St. Vincent's and through the Food Bank, I think we really did figure out how to make sure that nobody's hungry. And that's why people should come to Empty Bowls."

In addition to serving meals to Glory Hole residents, the Franklin Street shelter and soup kitchen serves nonresidents, such as those staying in campgrounds or in their cars, and distributes about 120 to 150 food boxes a month to anyone who asks for one.

"I don't want people to feel like they need to explain why they need food," she said.

The shelter and soup kitchen served 4,004 meals in January, and Lovishchuk estimates only about a third went to shelter residents.

Though immediate food needs are being met, chronic food insecurity and housing issues remain tough problems, and the shelter can only help address them if it has the funds to operate, she said. State and federal grant money only goes so far, she said.

"We can get (grants) for specific things, but it's really hard to get them for general operating expenses, which is the most important thing we've got going," she said. "And that's where individual donations and things like Empty Bowls come in."

Money from the event makes up nearly 20 percent of its annual budget, and goes to pay for everyday expenses from utility bills to cooking oil to bus tokens.

Individual donations have gone down in the past few years, Lovishchuk said, and two of her goals for the year are to try to get that number up and to encourage younger people to donate.

The recession has affected cash flow, while also contributing to increased need in some areas. For example, the Glory Hole has recently seen a pronounced increase in the number of families seeking shelter, but the facility is ill-equipped to provide for them. St. Vincent's has a waiting list of 85 families, she said.

The family trend is reflected in national figures as well: The Annual Homeless Assessment Report, released by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, found an 8 percent increase in the number of sheltered homeless families from 2007 to 2008. A lack of affordable housing was cited as the top cause.

In another indicator of tough times, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that in 2008 14.6 percent of American households were food insecure - the largest level of food insecurity since the government began tracking the issue in 1995.

Lovishchuk said she is grateful for all the help she receives in combating these issues, and said the Empty Bowls event itself is a good example of how cooperative community efforts can make things happen. Local businesses donate most of the soup, local artists donate most of the bowls (although this year some came from Pier One due to fewer donations than expected), and high school kids have volunteered to help serve. In addition to the meal and the take-home bowl, the event will include a silent auction and musical entertainment.

Lovishchuk said she hopes to draw a big crowd.

"If this fundraiser is successful," she said, "then I can feel really good about the year."

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