By Mary DeTurris Poust
I will never forget the first time I looked real poverty in the eyes. I was a young reporter for Catholic New York newspaper. Having grown up in a lovely home in a suburban town north of New York City, I had been lucky enough not only to avoid poverty in my own life but to avoid even the slightest brush with it in anyone else’s life. Catholic New York changed all that for me. Week after week, as we covered the stories of real people in need throughout Manhattan and the Bronx and Staten Island and the upper counties of the archdiocese, I would walk into one desperate situation after another and realize how different the world was from what I had first imagined.
Some people, some poverty still stands out in my mind. The young single mother who was living in a welfare hotel too disgusting for words. A single electric burner for cooking. Garbage on every side. A little boy crawling around on a filthy floor in one room with no running water, little light and even less hope. The soup kitchen not that far from my suburban home where good people braved not so good neighborhoods to serve a healthy and hearty breakfast to families that would otherwise go hungry all day. The children of migrant farm workers who played all day in buildings not fit to serve as chicken coops but that they had to call home for many months out of the year before they packed up to go to an equally abhorrent place in some other farming region. There, beside fields of endless green, two religious sisters struggled every day to give those children something to hold onto while they waited for nightfall when their parents would return.
It was that migrant farm labor camp that came to mind when I saw the exhibit by AmericanPoverty.org at the New York State Catholic Conference's annual Public Policy Day in Albany, N.Y. this week. Sponsored by Catholic Charities USA, the traveling exhibit tries to give Americans a glimpse of the kind of poverty I saw as a young reporter, the kind of poverty that most of us miss because we are lucky enough to have decent jobs and good homes and food on our table, the kind of poverty that we cannot imagine but that haunts us once we see it in the eyes of a hungry child or desperate mother.
AmericanPoverty.org is a project of In Our Own Backyard, an organization of photojournalists committed to raising awareness of and alleviating poverty in the United States. (The photo by Brenda Ann Kenneally at the top of this post is part of a photo essay on "Children of the the Gulf.") The photos are heart-wrenching reminders of what exists often just around the corner from us. Go visit the site HERE and check out the exhibit schedule, which includes Nashville, Cleveland and Chicago in the coming weeks.