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Seeing poverty up close

Compassion blurs the lines when MEND assesses need

November 06, 2010|Sandy Banks

And what about the family in the comfortable rental home, with a quinceañera photo on proud display? Dad is a painter but hasn't worked in months. His wife snags odd jobs cleaning houses. They asked for food and a gift for their 6-year-old, "so she can have a Christmas, like they gave her brothers and sisters," Gilbert said.

She registered them as "needy" too but predicted they would be "truly needy" when Christmas rolls around next year.

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The day put a face on economic woes. It turned politics personal.

I can imagine the computers booting up, the comments headed for our message board. Because illegal immigration was the elephant in those tiny living rooms.

Many of the people we interviewed were men without papers who can't find jobs; women who've lived here for 10 years but still needed translators. Those are facts. But I saw faces. And I wasn't the only volunteer who came away chastened.

"It didn't feel right," said Matt Clark, a freshman at Cal State Northridge who volunteered with three friends pledging Pi Kappa Alpha. "To go through their houses and see what they don't have, that was a little awkward for us. It was pretty crazy — three families, 15 people, living in one house. I can't imagine their experiences."

Clark grew up in suburban Orange County, "conservative in my politics," he said. Now "I probably wouldn't be able to tell somebody that they had to leave the country, to their face."

He learned that it's easy to argue the abstract, but the heart can blur hard lines.

Behind the statistics and slogans and stereotypes, there's a woman living six miles from me, who sleeps on a hard floor in a converted garage, with her arms around a hungry child.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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