published Sunday, July 8th, 2012

David Cook: The other Chattanooga most of us don't know

The last time Dennis Gallian took his wife, Gwen, out to dinner was six months ago.

"McDonald's," said Gwen. "It was all we had money for."

Three days a week, Dennis -- 57, Vietnam vet -- works in a North Georgia factory. He wants five days of work, so on his off days, he sells his blood plasma for barely $50. He uses it to buy a few groceries.

"And diapers," he said. "For my grandson."

In his hand he tightly clutches his electricity bill, which is $222.82 and overdue. It's creased and wrinkled, like it's been folded and unfolded a thousand times, each time the Gallians either praying or cursing or both: How do we pay this month?

Last Monday, they woke up at 4:30 a.m. to line up outside the glass doors of the Metropolitan Ministries on McCallie Avenue. Others had gotten in line much earlier.

"Three-thirty,'' said Richard Jackson, 34 and "disabled.''

Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, the un- and underemployed make their way to MetMin for one reason: help. To pay the rent. Buy food. Find work. Eyeglasses, veterans care, job training. To just make it through the month.

"You know that whole teach-a-man-to-fish philosophy? I hate that," said Executive Director Rebecca Whelchel. "You see someone drowning? You don't stand on the shore and teach them to swim.''

I spent Monday morning at MetMin. Before I left my home, I complained because we were out of bread for breakfast toast. It's not that we couldn't afford bread. We just forgot to buy some. Just. Forgot.

The memory of that complaint burned in my mind all morning.

Gwen, after a series of strokes, owes at least two hospitals. No medical insurance.

"We're running out of stuff to pawn," said Dennis.

They've already pawned more than they can remember: TV, camcorder, the title to his pick-up truck.

"My wedding band,'' said Gwen.

Imagine. Selling your wedding band for rent.

"They may be living without water or electricity and can only pay either the medicine or rent. They have to make heinous, 'Sophie's Choice'-like decisions," said Whelchel.

How do we -- the rest of us -- make decisions about how to spend our money? As people? As a city and county?

Chattanooga's social services budget -- after initially receiving even less -- will receive $830,000 out of the $209 million budget. A proposed firing range for law enforcement will cost $1 million. The road up Aetna Mountain is expected to cost $9 million -- and be funded by taxpayers.

Why does a road receive nine times more money than the entire social services budget?

It's apples and oranges, I know. Lawyers, bank loans, bonds and terms like "tax increment financing'' make it seem complicated.

But MetMin saw more than 7,000 people last year. Whelchel estimates nearly half of her clients are new, which means our city's poverty crisis is only getting worse.

And for the Gallians -- whose story represents those of thousands of others -- the complication is how to keep the lights on. How to sell more plasma. What to pawn next.

"This is the Chattanooga people don't know about,'' said Whelchel.

For me to criticize the city budget, I must also criticize my own budget. Each month, the last line item: contributions, donations, money to help groups that help others.

For shortchanging social services, the city is wrong. But so am I. It can be as complicated -- or as simple -- as you wish to make it.

That dinner at McDonald's?

Gwen remembers not finishing her dinner that night. She made a simple decision.

Gave her meal away. To her grandson.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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conservative said...

Baloney!!!

July 8, 2012 at 4:48 p.m.
ITguy said...

Gwen after a series of strokes owes two hospitals, no insurance.

Why is it that you self righteous conservatives always believe that people are poor through their own fault? Did you not read the article? Turn off Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, and go down to the metropolitan ministries and see for yourself. It is a myth that the poor are lazy. I am sure that Dennis would love to have full time work. You know anyone hiring?

July 8, 2012 at 6:04 p.m.
sundial said...

What about all of us who continue to pay for the bad decisions of the wealthy, the powerful? Seems like for the poor it's about their 'decisions.' Whose decisions are more devastating? Who decided to make sure that the poor no longer have jobs that pay a living wage, for example?

July 8, 2012 at 8:59 p.m.
Leaf said...

I believe the fundamental difference between liberals and conservatives is the ability to feel empathy.

July 9, 2012 at 11:08 a.m.
Walden said...

"I believe the fundamental difference between liberals and conservatives is the ability to feel empathy."

Oh, where to start? Leaf, I bet you are about 18 or 20 years old, because only someone that young could make such a stupid comment. Is it empathetic to believe that the Government should take money away from successful people and very inefficiently re-distribute it to the "less fortunate,"; or is it really more empathetic to give of your own time and money to help out a brother or sister in need? Point being, statistics show that people calling themselves conservative are far more generous with their own time and money than are those who call themselves liberal. It is actually rather morally bankrupt to expect someone else to pay for another's charity. Now, back to your video game.

July 9, 2012 at 3:45 p.m.
Fendrel said...

Good choices? Bad choices? There is no such thing as choice period. We live in a deterministic universe and falling back on quantum fluctuations only adds chaos to the mix, not control.

I help someone that needs it, because it's the right and kind thing to do, not because I approve of how they arrived at their current state in life.

July 9, 2012 at 5:03 p.m.
candles5 said...

To Leaf I say that I am conservative and I feel empathy for others which causes me to act! I care deeply for the unborn's right to life which is only ONE reason I am conservative; I believe justice begins in the womb and I deeply care for their lives. It is very damaging to our nation to claim that it is either liberals or conservatives that have empahty; this attitude divides and does not strengthen us as a nation. I am amazed how polarized our nation has become. Because I care for the poor, I started a non-profit that helps the poor, but I help them in a way that gives them dignity. Again, I believe we must look at our personal giving records and our personal actions to others to reveal if we have true empathy or mere talk.

July 10, 2012 at 7:08 a.m.
Leaf said...

I wish I were 18 or 20 again. (knowing what I know now, of course)

I find it interesting that while I didn't say which group felt more empathy, everyone assumed I meant liberals.

But candles5 is right. My comment was a gross oversimplification. Not all conservatives lack empathy. I would say, however, that people who blame the poor for their situation lack empathy.

July 10, 2012 at 11:05 a.m.
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