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Hunger Series: Divorce, disability caused downturn

LYNN —  Evelyn Lawson never thought about where her next meal would come from.

But that all changed when her marriage collapsed. She lost her home to foreclosure and was left to raise two children by herself.

At the same time, the 53-year-old West Lynn resident was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. While Lawson collected Supplemental Security Income, a federal program designed to help the disabled, and $288 in food stamps, she was sometimes unable to feed the family.

“Given the high price of food, it was not enough to get through the month and we have to spread out what little we have to make food last,” she said. “It’s challenging being a disabled single parent trying to keep food on the table. I cried a lot because as a mom you want to feed your kids.”

People with disabilities face a series of trials as they navigate the two years it can take to get benefits. The other factor is the amount of payments has not increased in more than three decades, advocates say.

“In the 1980s, benefits were enough to pay rent in a rooming house and with food stamps it made it possible to get by,”  said Dianne Kuzia Hills, executive director at My Brother’s Table, one of the largest soup kitchens on the North Shore. “No one was living high on the hog, but at least they had a roof over their head and three squares a day. But the payments haven’t kept pace with the cost of living.”

As a result, she said, about two-thirds of the guests at My Brother’s Table are disabled.

“We have some folks here who have very serious disabilities, which makes it very difficult for them to prepare food,” she said.

Among the other patrons of the soup kitchen are people who live in single-occupancy rooming houses. They lack access to a communal kitchen, or a stove and refrigerator and have no place to store food.

About one-third of the guests are folks staff has known for quite a while, another third are people who have temporarily fallen on hard times. Others line up for meals on the last week of the month when they’ve run out of money.

“We also see others pass through, like landscapers, seasonal workers and runaways,” she said.

Last year, the nonprofit served 186,000 meals. That’s up 26 percent from 2015 when 147,000 lunches and dinners were served.

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