City, community address local poverty

Austin Ramsey/The News

This story is the first of a three-week series extensively exploring the effects of poverty in the city of Murray.

The sound inside the Need Line food warehouse is unmistakable. The cadent clap of canned goods one atop another and the shuffle of boxes along the hard floor create a dull echo from the ceilings.

The food here is stored amidst a struggle, each stack in a race to reach the high metal roof, but every day stunted by a growing need feverishly met by a group of volunteers tugging at their bases. And down a short hallway that hides the boxes and cans from the light of day, a foyer is alive with its own clamor of local people applying to be a part of Need Line’s food and toiletries programs.

A room of the needed next to a room of the needy.

Tonia Casey, executive director of Need Line, whose office opens up to the middle of that hallway, says she’s seen considerably more activity outside her office than ever before.

Indeed, the population of impoverished people in Murray has grown.

According to data from the 2010 U.S. Census, 21.8 percent of Murray’s total population of 18,000 is below the poverty line. That’s 4.1 percent higher than the state average and almost 5 percent higher than Calloway County in which the small University town lies.

But Casey said while those numbers are shocking, it is the agencies designed to help that tell the true story – how Need Line serves more people today than ever before in its history, or how churches around the city organized a warming shelter this winter to help meet the needs of those who were unable to find a warm place to sleep.

She said Need Line acts as a screening facility to those in the county and city who are in financial trouble. Need Line can offer individuals bags of food or hygiene products or help to pay rent or utility costs.

Casey has worked at the facility for 12 years. She said Murray’s screening facility for the poverty-stricken and homeless receives more than double the amount of aid applications it receives in a little more than 10 years.

“We used to think we were busy if we had 300 applications per month,” she said. “Now it’s typical to have 1,000 per month.”

Some residents of Murray aren’t that shocked to learn of the town’s marginally higher impoverished population. Casey said she thinks the number is directly related to Murray’s pay wages.

“The majority of the families that come to Need Line work or have some kind of income,” she said.

She has noticed huge leaps in prices of gas, food and rent in the city, while wages have hovered or decreased over the years she said .

“If you are working for minimum wage at a restaurant and your spouse is working for a landscaping businesses for minimum wage and you have three children, you’re in poverty here,” she said.

With the average size of a family in Murray hovering only above two people, the average poverty threshold line stays at $14,710 per year for most households. Income below that mark earns the impoverished classification by the U.S. Census Bureau. The average household income in Murray is $32,556 – relatively high compared to similar communities in the state, though still a little more than $9,000 under the state average.

But Casey thinks measurements like those don’t paint the picture for the sizeable chunk of Murray under the poverty line.

To her, low wages account for much of Murray’s impoverished and homeless. She said poor pay in factories and service-oriented working environments make it difficult for the impoverished to recover their financial standing locally. But for lack of money, those same individuals are unable to leave the area in search of better pay.

Matt Mattingly, Murray’s city administrator, won’t hesitate to admit that Murray has far lower wages compared to similar communities in the state. He said it’s difficult to measure, but pay is certainly lower.

“The city of Murray as well as other companies and corporations here in Murray have lower wages compared to others,” he said.

Mattingly said, however, that Murray’s attractor is not in its pay but in its setting.

“Murray’s a unique town,” he said. “It’s quality of life. If you chose quality of life over salaries, this is what you end up with.”

He said the housing market crash has also contributed to Murray’s higher percentage.

“With economic times as tough as they are and job loss as tough as it is, we’re seeing more and more people who need assistance,” he said.

John Dale, outreach minister at Glendale Road Church of Christ, has made the needy of Murray and Calloway County his mission.

He said he has long seen a growing trend of both impoverished and homeless individuals in the city that he says can be attributed to a variety of factors, be it the loss of large corporations early last decade or simply more agency awareness.

But he said almost all of the individuals who are in need seek churches and other agencies to fill that need because of a growing independence. He said that has burdened those facilities such as the Angel’s Clinic to provide free health care, Need Line for food or the Gentry House for free housing, whose goals aim to soften the economic blow nearly a quarter of Murray has sustained.

This year, Dale has spearheaded a specific need to meet the growing need of housing for Murray’s homeless.

In a study conducted by Need Line over the past two years, 52 homeless people were identified in 2010 and 104 in 2011 – the number doubled in a year’s time.

“And the monthly average isn’t getting any better for this year,” he said.

He has organized a task force that has studied the Paducah (Ky.) Cooperative Ministries women’s shelter, a 40-bed facility capable of housing women with or without children for up to 90 days.

The shelter would work in association with the Gentry House, which is Murray’s only real relief to the current homeless population in Murray. That facility only services families and is backed up with applicants because it has only four 2-bedroom units to offer.

There is no 24-7, qualification-free shelter at this time.

Wendy Lovett, the Gentry House director, said the shelter is always full and always has applicants – currently 10 to 12 homeless families, but sometimes more.

“I’ve seen a 15 to 20 percent increase in the need every year,” she said. “And the need is not just for housing. I’ve seen a whole lot of other needs that have started to come along.”

Times have been tough for some Murray residents and Jennifer Brindley, a resident and clerk at Huck’s convenience store, said she’s coming off a hard financial year.

That’s why she spent her Monday morning sitting in the lobby of Need Line, with an application and a pen.

“I was injured and unable to work for 15 months,” she said, looking up from her application and copying numbers and dates from her personal documentation. “I need this utility assistance.”

This isn’t the first time Brindley has used Need Line’s services.

She says it has been a life saver on more than one occasion.

“It’s stopped my utilities from being shut off,” she said. “It’s helped me feed the family. It’s all been difficult – even personal items like shampoo, you know, toiletries.”

She said she does not believe she is alone in hurting.

“Just working at Huck’s and seeing how many people pay for their items with all their change,” she said. “It’s quite a lot. I think the times are … they’re just rough.”