Tuesday, November 19, 2013

In the News: The San Francisco Chronicle

Bay Area food banks need help ahead of holiday

Published 6:46 pm, Tuesday, November 19, 2013
 (This is reposted from SF Gate.com)

Ghaleb Milouda (left) helps her mother, Mahjouba Benabou, bag items for the food pantry at St. Francis Lutheran Church. Photo: Leah Millis, The Chronicle 

Blame it on this month's cut in food stamps. Or stubbornly lean times for the poor. Or Thanksgiving coming later in the month this year.

They all boil down to this: Bay Area food banks and other charities that hope to lay out a traditional Thanksgiving feast for the poor next week are running well short of turkeys and other staples of a good holiday meal. And unless they get a heaping helping of last-minute luck and donations, there's going to be more grief than gobble this year for those struggling to get by.

As of Tuesday evening, the San Francisco and Marin Food Banks were short 800 turkeys. The Alameda County Food Bank still needed 4,000 turkeys, hams and chickens.

St. Anthony's Dining Room in the Tenderloin, one of the biggest meal providers in the Bay Area, is ready to start its annual drive for 1,000 turkeys on Saturday - and, with needs spiking higher every day, organizers are nervous.

Every year brings a call for more donations, but this year seems different, charity managers said. And not in a good way.


"Before this month, we'd go from serving 2,400 meals a day to about 2,600 around the end of the month, but now we hit that 2,600 mark right away," said Karl Robillard, spokesman for St. Anthony's. "People are feeling the safety net start to erode. Pay is flat, rents are up, and even though we always trust that people will come through, it's more nerve-racking than ever."

Paul Ash, executive director of the San Francisco and Marin Food Banks, said that not only is his nonprofit short hundreds of turkeys, but also donations are running about $1 million shy of where they should be this time of year.

"As we come out of the economic downturn, people are looking away from giving to food banks and more toward the arts, things like that," Ash said. "They kind of make the assumption that with the stock market being so high, and so much prosperity coming into San Francisco, that maybe people don't need as much as they used to. But it's just not true."

More poor

U.S. census data show that while great wealth has accumulated at the top end of the economic scale in the past few years, the number of Americans living in poverty rose from 13 percent in 2008 to 15 percent in 2012.

The Public Policy Institute of California, using locally tailored numbers, said a more accurate figure for poor people in California is 30 percent overall - and 39 percent for children.

Federal figures also show that 20 percent of the nation's children go hungry every night, and in San Francisco the total is 25 percent, according to a city Food Security Task Force report due Thursday.
Those numbers are likely to rise because of this month's cuts in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps. Monthly benefits dropped by as much as $36 for a family of four. That may not seem like much to some, but it's huge for anyone scraping by on minimum wage or welfare, said Mike Altfest, spokesman for the Alameda County Food Bank.

Worse this year

"That cut in food stamps means missed meals, as simple as that," Altfest said. "People's benefits typically run out every month after about three weeks, but this year is much worse and we are seeing it right now."

He said that in November last year, his nonprofit had received 18 emergency calls for food help by this time of the month. So far this month, it has received 51.

"And those are just the ones we are hearing from," Altfest said. "The fact that the volume has nearly tripled is extremely telling. We knew these food stamp cuts were coming at a bad time, but this is validation."

Waiting in line at the food bank giveaway at St. Francis Lutheran Church on Church Street in San Francisco, 58-year-old Calvin Cole glumly totaled up his prospects Tuesday for next week's holiday meal.

"They used to have the Salvation Army come in and serve us a meal, but that ended a while ago," said the resident of the Graystone Hotel supportive housing complex near Union Square. "I'm going to stay at home and listen to some music and be glad I'm alive.
"Not much else I can do. These are very hard times."

Looking forward

For Anthony Alfone, 47, and his family of four, the holiday looks a little brighter - if St. Anthony's manages to snare enough turkeys.

"We'll be back here on Thanksgiving and feel blessed to have the meal," Alfone said, taking in lunch with his wife and 2-year-old son. "We're in a shelter saving money right now to be able to move out, so we can't afford a holiday meal on our own. But this is a great place, and I'm sure they'll come up with something."

His son, Zeus, took in a forkful of curry chicken and laughed.

"For us, it's really about family and being grateful for what you have," Alfone said. "That's all you really need for the holiday."

He smiled at his son.
"But it does help to have turkey," Alfone said, patting the boy on the head.

How to help

Among those accepting donations for Thanksgiving meals:
-- San Francisco and Marin Food Banks: 900 Pennsylvania Ave., San Francisco. Call (415) 282-1907 for hours.
-- Alameda County Food Bank: 7900 Edgewater Drive, Oakland. Call (510) 635-3663 for hours.
-- St. Anthony's Dining Room: Turkey drive begins Saturday,150 Golden Gate Ave., San Francisco. Call (415) 241-2600 for hours.
-- Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, 330 Ellis St., San Francisco. Call (415) 674-6000 for hours.
-- Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano, 4010 Nelson Ave., Concord. Call (925) 676-7543 for hours.
-- Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties: Call (866) 234-3663 or e-mail donor.relations@shfb.org for locations and hours.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

In the News: San Francisco Chronicle

High schoolers react to fire attack on bus

Updated 10:43 pm, Saturday, November 16, 2013

If you squint, you can see Pastor Megan Rohrer's clergy collar under the "get well" sign.

(reposted from the San Francisco Chronicle)

They are two teenagers from two different worlds in Oakland - one a straight-A student from the hills who identifies as neither he nor she, the other a struggling student who lives in the bullet-riddled flatlands and considers himself a jokester.
On Nov. 4, the jokester, 16-year-old Richard Thomas, lit the skirt of the agender person, 18-year-old Sasha Fleischman, on fire as they rode an AC Transit bus. Fleischman has been in a hospital ever since, undergoing skin grafts for second- and third-degree burns to the legs, and Thomas is in custody, having been charged as an adult with what prosecutors call a hate-motivated assault.
But this has turned out to be much more than a crime story.
In the days since the attack, those who know Fleischman and Thomas have agonized over how to express their sorrow, anger and compassion. Even as the discussions turn to the differences between privilege and underclass, they circle back to one main point: Despite this violent act, acceptance among the young of kids of varying gender orientations is spreading across demographic lines.

Similar reactions

Agender, or nonbinary, identification may be a lesser-known concept at the sprawling Oakland High School, which Thomas attends, than at Fleischman's private Maybeck High School in Berkeley, but after the attack students at both campuses reacted with similar horror and sympathy.
Youths at Thomas' East Oakland campus have raised hundreds of dollars for Fleischman, made posters, held support rallies and helped friends of the family tie rainbow-colored ribbons to poles along the bus route on which the teenager was attacked. And when a community march was held Thursday night in support of the burned youth, students from both campuses carried banners together.
"One thing I would hope can come of this, a silver lining of some sort out of everything everyone is talking about and doing, is a greater awareness of genderqueer issues," said the burned youth's father, kindergarten teacher Karl Fleischman. "Sasha has a very strong sense of justice, and I know they would like that."

They, not he

The younger Fleischman prefers to be referred to as "they," rather than he or she. The teenager was born male and named Luke, but at 16 announced he was agender and took the name Sasha.
"It seems like I should be angrier at what happened to Sasha ... but I keep holding out the possibility that the kid just thought it would be something funny to do and didn't know the consequences," Fleischman said. "I just know that 16-year-olds are not fully formed yet."
Even Thomas' edgier friends at Oakland High, who have drawn raised eyebrows by thrusting their fists in the air on occasion and yelling, "Free Richard!" say there was no good defense for what happened. It was just something bone-headed, not something hateful, they said.
"Doesn't matter if you're rich or poor, black or white, you can't be hating gay people, or people who don't think they're he or she," Bert Marshall, who like his friend Thomas is a 16-year-old junior, said the other day as he waited for a bus at the campus. "What Richard did was a prank. It had nothing to do with race or money or hate. He doesn't hate gays.
"He just did a prank that got out of hand."
Another friend, a sophomore who said he goes by X, shook his head. If Thomas, who is black, "was a white person like the one who got lit up, he'd be out of jail the next day," he said, then yelled, "Free Richard!"
Marshall snorted and shot his friend a look.
"That ain't right and you know it," he said. "It's not black or white. It's not antigay."
"Yeah, OK, I know," X said. "But Richard told me it was just a joke."

Heightened sensitivity

Oakland High's test scores are well below the state average, according to the GreatSchools ranking organization, and the racially diverse student body draws significantly from lower-income neighborhoods. Those factors only serve to strengthen an understanding attitude toward Fleischman, said several educators there, by creating a heightened sensitivity toward violence, diversity and adversity.
Earnest Jenkins III, who teaches manhood development at Oakland High, said what happened on the bus has "been the subject of discussions in my classes for days." And Amy Wilder, adviser to the Gay Straight Alliance on campus, said the incident has reinforced for students the notion of "upstanding" - standing up to intervene when something wrong is happening, such as a skirt being worn by someone who looks like a man being set on fire aboard a city bus.
"A lot of kids say they understand what could prompt such a thing - a prank, peer pressure, maybe some homophobia," Jenkins said. "But following through by actually lighting a human being on fire? That's unacceptable, and everyone understands that. The kids really get that more than ever."

Prank gone wrong

Thomas' lawyer, William Du Bois, said at a court hearing Friday that his client feels the same way.
He said the boy lit Fleischman on fire only as a "prank, which went terribly wrong," and was not motivated by hate. Police said Thomas has conceded that homophobia was an element, but Du Bois said investigators "browbeat" the admission out of Thomas during interrogation.
Thomas is "extremely remorseful," Du Bois said, and has written "heartfelt" letters to Fleischman's family.
The defendant's mother and grandmother expressed similar sentiments at an earlier court hearing, and a cousin who relatives said is transgender attended Friday's hearing. But after those first comments more than a week ago, the family has rebuffed requests for interviews.
Thomas' neighbors in the Castlemont area of East Oakland, where pit bulls and iron window bars proliferate, said the family is mortified and sorrowful.
"Richard is a good kid and they may not be rich, but his people raise him right," said Leroy Goode, a close friend of Thomas' grandmother, Juliette Stern. "But that's Juliette's call to talk about if she wants to talk."
Several adults and students at Oakland High said Thomas struggled academically - Du Bois said he had "educational challenges" that led him to be a "class clown" - and he spent too much time in the street, but not with gangs. His nickname is "Pretty Boy" because of his attention to clothes, and he's admired on the basketball court for his smooth outside shots.

A different place

Fleischman's home is only a mile uphill from Oakland High, but the teen's world is very different.
The senior is editor of the magazine and founder of the computer club at proudly progressive Maybeck High, where tuition can run $28,000 a year. The family chose Maybeck because of its small class size and reputation for academic excellence. Fleischman is a National Merit Scholar semifinalist and has applied to go to MIT next fall.
When Fleischman came out as agender to family members and teachers two years ago, it caused few ripples.
"The idea of not wanting to choose a gender was pretty brand new to us," Karl Fleischman said. "But there was never any question that we'd be supportive. We love Sasha."
The announcement was also received warmly at Maybeck, said school Director Trevor Cralle.
"We've always been an incredibly accepting community where nobody is going to be made fun of for wearing a funny hat or a skirt," Cralle said. "And Sasha - well, Sasha is an amazing student who just blossomed after coming out.
"I think if anyone can come through this attack OK, it would be Sasha. They are very smart and very strong."

Fleischman's friends have frequently visited or texted their classmate in the hospital, and profess more desire to understand Thomas than be angry with him. A few days after the attack, half the school showed up in skirts to display solidarity with Fleischman - and then on Thursday, many chatted with their Oakland High counterparts at the community rally.
"The only person who really knows why that happened in the person who did it," said Sarah Levine, a 16-year-old junior who also identifies as agender. "Anything we think would be speculation."

'I'm feeling alright'

Levine showed a text Fleischman sent last week that read, "I'm feeling alright, a little sore though." Levine added that when friends visited the hospital, Fleischman was more eager to talk about their upcoming zombie post-apocalypse role-playing game than the attack.
"Sasha is the most fundamentally good person I know," said Levine. "We can't wait for Sasha to get back here to school."
The attack happened less than a mile from Fleischman's home in the Glenview hills neighborhood of Oakland, where median incomes of those in the craftsman homes are nearly double that in the city overall. Fleischman's father said it was doubly sad that Sasha was burned on a bus, since the 18-year-old is a fan of all things transit.
"I don't think this attack has shaken Sasha's sense of self, but it did make me sad when they said the other day, 'When I go back to school, can you give me a ride?' because riding buses is really a passion for Sasha," Fleischman said.
He paused to gather his thoughts.
"What's most important here is that Sasha recover fully, and the doctors say that will happen," Fleischman said. Doctors have told the family the 18-year-old may be able to go home by Thanksgiving.
Fleischman said the next steps, beyond continuing education, are less clear.
Sasha Fleischman has always had a passion for social justice - "when the Trayvon Martin ruling came out, they were yelling at the television about how wrong it was," the elder Fleischman said - and last spring the youth gathered 27,000 signatures on the Internet asking President Obama to address agender issues. But how the attack will affect that passion is an unknown, Fleischman said.
"Sasha has thought in the past about being a spokesperson for these gender issues, but they are shy," he said. "And we've talked about the light this incident has thrown on agender issues and respecting different ways of being.
"But I'm not sure where that will all go. The future? We'll see."