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When hope is all that's left

Mark Mardell | 08:56 UK time, Thursday, 29 October 2009

The gentlemen and ladies from St Mary's Catholic Church in Closter, New Jersey are busy tonight, piling plates high with home-cooked meatloaf, carrots, potatoes, macaroni cheese and two types of rice. Most of their clients want the lot. It's St Mary's turn behind the serving spoons at the spanking new centre for the homeless in Bergen county.

Sixty-two people who would otherwise be homeless live here but anyone can come in and get the free evening meal. Last night a hundred people came off the streets of this very affluent area, a stylish suburb of New York, to take advantage of the free food.

It's predicted that figures due out later today will show modest growth in the American economy.

Madge and Rosemary handing out a vast quantity of home-baked brownies and brightly-coloured cupcakes, tell a different story to the statistics. They say they are serving twice as many people as this time last year.

The manager of the shelter Mary Sunden says there has been a dramatic change. It's not just the increase in the number of people turning up, it's who they are. Many homeless people have mental health or drug problems. But Mary says they are now seeing a different type of person as well, people who have lost their job and suddenly find they can't keep up payments on their home and a car. She says these people don't know anyone who uses the welfare system but suddenly find themselves in it. They are, she says, "lost, confused and frightened".

None of these adjectives describe Elizabeth Russo. A quietly-spoken but very self-possessed woman in her 60s, she has a resilience that is awe-inspiring. She has been living in the shelter for a year. She lost her home. But never her job. She works in a supermarket and when the economy turned down her hours were cut. Then they were cut some more. Eventually she wasn't earning enough to keep her home.

But she surprises me by telling me she agrees with the official figures. Her hours have gone up again recently, and she can tell that people are spending more, just a little bit more. It's not enough to make a huge difference, but it's there. Tonight she is happy. She has just heard that she can get on a voucher scheme that will mean she can get out of the shelter and into an apartment. She has nothing but praise for the commitment of the staff of the shelter and the stimulus money that made this possible.

Tonight she is happy.

The director to the centre Julia Orlando says that the stimulus money has made all the difference for them, meaning they can extend programmes, helping people get into somewhere they can again call home.

Just before we leave, Julia turns away but fails to hide the tears in her eyes. One man she has worked with is very ill. He lost his job because he was sick. Then he lost his home paying the medical bills. He's been living in shelters for quite a while, but hasn't seen his grown up children because he's too ashamed to let them know what has happened. Now Julia has helped him get an apartment. He shows her the keys and gives her a big hug.

Some will find little comfort in today's cold statistics, and they will question the stimulus package. Doubtless it is right to point out any sign of recovery is fragile and the reason for optimistic statistics should be examined closely. But down at rock bottom, when hope is all that is left, every little victory is sweet.


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