The devastation of Hurricane Katrina pulled back the curtain and revealed a United States that has long been ignored by most people — one with entire segments of the population living in poverty and in desperate need of services, community advocates said Thursday evening.
With the images of the storm's poorest victims still fresh in people's minds, the advocates met in a panel discussion to explore how to keep alive the spirit of giving that led communities across the country, and especially in Utah, to rally to the aid of the evacuees.
"The hurricane really pulled back the curtain on the perception that America is a rich country. And we are, if you're rich," said Bill Crim, executive director of the United Ways of Utah."But lots of people, not just low-income households, are just barely getting by."
If the hurricane does anything, the advocates said, it should raise awareness of the many people living in poverty throughout the country.
"As we've looked at all of this outpouring of love and care and concern, we are very, very much aware that there are a number of people who live in Utah who are homeless, who are living near homelessness, who are the working poor," said Pamela Atkinson, a key coordinator of Utah's hurricane response.
In Utah, more than 7,000 people called a hurricane relief hotline to offer money, time and goods to the nearly 600 hurricane evacuees who eventually made their way to Utah.
The challenge now, Atkinson said, is to encourage continued giving to the state's own needy citizens. "How can we carry this momentum forward so that instead of giving at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and now at times of disaster, how can we carry this forward to meet the needs 365 days of the year?"
The panelists agreed that one large problem is that the hurricane and its destruction was so visible, while everyday poverty is not.
"A sudden onset disaster is much more easy to see and communicate," said Lloyd Pendleton with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints humanitarian services.
Those responsible for serving Utah's low-income community haven't done a very good job of effectively communicating the problem, he said.
One solution then, Atkinson said, is to bring to Utah citizens and lawmakers a similarly clear picture of Utahns in need.
"Perhaps our next step is to paint vivid pictures of what's happening to some of our Utah residents who are living in poverty," she said. "Of families who scrounge for newspapers to tear into squares to use for toilet paper. Of children going to bed hungry, of children who get sick because they can't afford to go to a doctor."
Katrina victims also may be more sympathetic than others, said Glenn Bailey, executive director of the Crossroads Urban Center. "I think there's a perception that when you're responding to folks who have had a natural disaster occur, that those are innocent victims," Bailey said. "When we deal with people in poverty, I think that very many people have a suspicion that, 'Gee, it's sort of their fault, isn't it?' "
With deadlines for federal budget decisions looming, and massive cuts to social services expected, Katrina leaves a "small window of opportunity" to call on lawmakers for a change, said Judi Hilman, fiscal and policy analyst for Utah Issues.
It is altogether reasonable to insist on no cuts to social programs, Hilman said, encouraging advocates to fight for no new tax cuts and a reversal of previous ones.
Resources are not a problem, said Pastor France Davis of the Calvary Baptist Church. The money, he said, is available.
"I think we have told ourselves, however, to ignore certain people, certain groups, certain categories of life," Pastor Davis said. "It's not that there isn't enough, it's that we've told ourselves to put it in different places."
In working with various federal government officials over the past several weeks, Atkinson said she was struck by the attitude she observed. "They do not understand what our friends who are living in poverty are going through on a daily basis and, therefore, do not have empathy," she said. "And I think it's up to us to educate them at this point."