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Agency director says homelessness, poverty on the rise

Agency director says homelessness, poverty on the rise


e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service


Agency director says homelessness, poverty on the rise

March 30, 2007  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0647}

An e-Review Feature
By John Michael De Marco**

Donna Ratzlaff says her organization saw a huge increase in the number of homeless people needing a meal during the last months of last year. The number of calls for rent and utility payments tripled.

“The demand always increases in the winter months because Florida is such a wonderful place to come to, but the number of people that have shown up has almost doubled,” she said. “That’s a phenomenon we haven’t seen at that level.”

As executive director of United Methodist Cooperative Ministries (UMCM), Ratzlaff is hoping more volunteers and organizations will help address the growing plight of the working poor and homeless in the Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg area.

A homeless man in the Tampa Bay area adjusts his belongings. Donna Ratzlaff, executive director of United Methodist Cooperative Ministries, says the number of people requesting food and assistance with rent and utilities from her agency doubled during the winter months, "a phenomenon we haven't seen at this level." Photo courtesy of United Methodist Cooperative Ministries. Photo #07-0556.

UMCM is a social outreach ministry of the Florida Conference’s Gulf Central District that serves portions of Manatee, Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando and west Citrus counties, with main offices in Clearwater and two satellite locations in St. Petersburg.

Incorporated in 1975 as a not-for-profit 501(C)3, faith-based corporation, it provides an array of social services — emergency food pantries, food programs for the homeless, bus passes, and health and wholeness parish nurse programs. It has also provided such educational programs as after-school tutoring, a preschool, computer learning labs, English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), family literacy, GED preparation and citizenship training.

“I think the economic pressures are so great, that more and more people are unable to even meet their basic needs,” said Ratzlaff, who has been executive director since 1991. “They often have to choose between, ‘Do I pay the rent and put a roof over my head, or do I keep on the electricity and the water, or do I cut back on food?’ We’ve seen a real big increase in the rent and utility area from senior citizens and from the disabled.”

A large proportion of the people UMCM feeds are what Ratzlaff terms the “working poor.” “They are barely making it. And the first thing that goes is food,” she said.

Despite increased needs, Ratzlaff said the pantries and kitchens have provided enough food to meet the demand. “Our groups have a habit of cooking more than they anticipate. A couple of times they have run out, but everyone has been able to scrape more together,” she said. “Nobody gets turned away; everybody gets something. It’s always a very well-balanced, hot meal, not just sandwiches.”

Churches, groups make a difference

But the continued surge in needs means more volunteers and resources are needed, and Ratzlaff says churches and youth groups can help alleviate hunger issues.

“Obviously, one (way) is for every local church to find out if there is a food pantry near them and do collections for that pantry,” she said.

Donna Ratzlaff, executive director of United Methodist Cooperative Ministries, says volunteers are the lifeblood of her agency's ministries. Those who assist with the organization's feeding programs "do everything," she says, from buying and preparing the food to serving it. Photo courtesy of United Methodist Cooperative Ministries. Photo #07-0557.

Each year, youth groups can also participate in Souper Bowl Sunday, a national hunger initiative the day of the National Football League’s Super Bowl. “They not only collect food, but donations they forward on to their food pantry,” Ratzlaff said.

Another option many churches may not know about is The Feinstein Challenge ( Alan Feinstein of Rhode Island challenges nonprofit agencies each year to raise a total of $1 million to fight hunger, then matches it with his own $1 million distributed back — on a percentage basis — to the agencies that participate.

“When he first started most people said he was crazy, until they got their checks,” Ratzlaff said.

UMCM is part of an ecumenical network that includes approximately 21 churches working together at St. Petersburg’s St. Vincent de Paul Center of Hope to coordinate daily evening meals for the area’s working poor and homeless. The churches offer volunteers who do everything, from purchasing all the food to organizing the cooking to getting it to the center and serving it.
“It runs all the way from a metropolitan community church to Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Seventh Day Adventists, non-denominational churches like Calvary Chapel, and United Methodist churches,” Ratzlaff said. “It’s not just adults who are involved in the processes. We have several youth groups, where that is their mission outreach. They have a night assigned to them; they cook the dinner and go down and serve.”

In 2006, this arsenal of church members combined to serve more than 68,000 meals. An average of 150 to 200 men, women and children show up on a given night. For many, it is their only hot meal of the day, Ratzlaff said. “It makes a huge impact.”

Doug Brown, a member of Pinellas Park United Methodist Church, coordinates the feeding ministry. He also operates a program at his church called Street Ministry. Ratzlaff said Brown and his wife, Jackie, have ministered to the homeless in St. Petersburg for about 25 years. Once homeless themselves, the Browns got back on their feet and promised God and themselves that their time, effort and resources would be committed to helping others in a similar plight.

“If anybody knows the homeless, Doug has been there and done that,” Ratzlaff said. “Five nights per week after work he’s down at St. Vincent de Paul, coordinating the feeding for that evening. This is a man who has found his passion. We need five more of him.”

Beyond St. Vincent’s, three other collaborative food pantries in the St. Petersburg area are located at Wesley, Clearview and Sylvan Abbey United Methodist churches, spread across the geographical boundaries of Pinellas County. Various other United Methodist congregations assist these pantries with food and volunteers.

Opportunities to help abound, but Ratzlaff urges churches to consider the stakes at hand before jumping in to help.

“I think a lot of times in the church we are geared toward one-shot, short-term things,” she said. “For churches to take on ministries, knowing there’s not going to be any easy fix and it is going to be long term, and make that commitment in time and energy is fantastic.”

Ratzlaff said people who have a passion for living out their faith are the lifeblood of her organization.

“Last year we utilized over 942 volunteers in our program, which ranged from one-shot deals with youth groups to some volunteers who have given five or six years of service to the agency,” she said.

More information about UMCM is available at


This article relates to Outreach.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**De Marco is a commissioned minister of the Florida Conference and a freelance writer, speaker and consultant.