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Hard times in Fort Wayne

During tough economic times, employers are choosy and discount stores, pawn shops, and shelters boom

By Gloria Diaz

Fort Wayne Reader

2008-11-25


It’s no secret — times are tough. As of this writing, gas prices have dropped, but that followed months where the cost of fuel climbed past $4 per gallon. Add to that a credit crisis, rampant foreclosures, bank closings, general Wall Street mayhem…

People are hurting, pinching pennies and doing whatever it takes to make ends meet in an environment where potential employers are skittish. It is never a good time to be looking for a job, but this past year has probably been among the worst times to go job hunting since the decade began. Regardless of your income, education or age, the economic downturn makes the odds seem stacked against you.

There are those who will probably scoff at people who “can’t find jobs.” However, the simple truth is there are people who want to work; there just isn’t much out there. And for those willing to work but can’t find anything, there are emotional aspects of being unemployed.

Clayton Whitacre, 21, of Decatur, has lived with his grandfather since he was a baby. They get along well, but his grandfather says his grandson feels guilty for not being able to contribute more to the household. Whitacre says he’s done a variety of jobs such as tearing down trailers, assembling furniture and hauling away heavy trash, but feels he hasn’t had much work experience, and that having a GED is holding him back.

The only option that recently presented itself was joining the armed forces. He says he was sitting in a food court filling out an application when a recruiter handed him a card. Whitacre is hoping something else will come along. One of the reasons he hasn’t joined the Army is the possibility of being seriously hurt or killed, along with “getting screwed monetarily.”

Newly minted grads are having a tough time of it, too. Job prospects are bleak for middle-aged and older workers with Bachelor’s degrees and years of experience, but what of recent graduates? Certain kinds of degrees — like nursing degrees — are still in high demand, but for others, employment seems scarce. But is the job situation as bad as it seems? Nancy Steigmeyer, regional area manager for Time Services, a staffing and recruiting company with offices in Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan, says “I think the media hypes it (the job situation) up a little bit.”

Of the people coming in and looking for work, Steigmeyer says there’s a variety, but there’s also an abundance of general labor. “A lot of people are looking for general assembly, and we just don’t have as many of those types of jobs,” she says. With an abundance of something, those seeking it can choose, and so it goes with employers. Steigmeyer has noticed that while employers usually have a “wish list” of skills they are looking for, and would normally accept four skills out of, say, 10 if an employee had them, now they are looking for all ten skills.

Despite the closings of local businesses, including chain retail stores like Value City Department Stores and Linens ‘n Things, other types of establishments seem to be doing well. At least one pawn shop has had 10 months of record-breaking business. Todd Speaks, assistant manager of Indiana Loan Company on Clinton Street, says he has seen “a surge over the last few months. Sales have been very good.” In the past 11 months, only April and August weren’t record months for the business.

When the gas prices were high, Speaks heard a lot of comments from customers, particularly from those in the construction business. Speaks recalls lots of tools being brought in by contractors, with their comment being, “I need gas money.”

The store staff has noticed more younger people coming in. Guitars and other musical instruments are usually the first to go, says Speaks. Right now, the store’s guitar inventory is actually a little bit low, but staff says that will change.

The store’s clientele consists of a lot of repeat customers “that bring things in over and over again,” says Speaks. He considers the store more of a jewelry store that also has other items, whereas most pawnshops have a little bit of jewelry, and lots of other merchandise. Speaks has seen people cry who bring in jewelry. Some of it is from a nasty breakup; some of it was, at one time, a treasured family heirloom.

Then, there’s the useless junk, which shows some people are scraping the bottom, looking for something that might get them a bit of cash. One woman brought in an empty coffee can with flowers on it. Years ago, when he worked at B and B Loan, Speaks recalls someone bringing in a wooden leg. He also heard a story about a gentleman who brought in his dentures. Of current merchandise brought into the store, Speaks says, “lately, we’ve seen a lot of old, low-end tools that we wouldn’t take in the first place.”

Compared with last year, Speaks said this November is a little bit low in terms of business, but he expects by the end of the month things will catch up.

Aldi’s, a discount grocery chain with its U.S. base in Batavia, Illinois, has also had a very good year. Martha Swaney, a spokesperson for Aldi’s, says the company has opened 100 new stores in 2008, which is double the number usually opened in a year. Aldi’s has 1000 stores in 29 states, throughout the East Coast and the Midwest, and carryies 1,400 of the most frequently purchased items that make up a typical grocery list.

“We have seen an increase in consumer traffic this year,” says Swaney, who describes the stores’ customers as being traditional supermarket shoppers — “typical-all walks of life.”

Swaney claims Aldi’s has the most loyal customers in the industry; familiar faces show up at the checkout lanes every week. But recently, many new customers have come in, as well. That’s no surprise, considering shopping at Aldi’s can save up to 50% on a grocery bill. And it’s not just food, either. Swaney says this holiday season, shoppers can expect to see items such as Hannah Montana electric guitars to a few Wii systems in the stores. Also, special purchase items from name brand food companies offer discounts on things like Stouffer’s TV dinners and Banquet chicken. For comparison, an eight-ounce tub of ice cream purchased from the ice cream truck this summer would have set you back $3. At Aldi’s, a 56-ounce tub of ice cream was going for $2.49. There’s a certain childhood nostalgia kick while buying from the ice cream truck, but it’s easy to see going to Aldi’s to get ice cream is a better deal.

However, for some people, the grocery store wasn’t an option. That’s where St. Mary’s Soup Kitchen tries to pick up the slack. Manager Diane Day said the kitchen fed 28,000 people in September. In October, it was more than 30,000.

“It (the number of people coming to the soup kitchen) keeps going up each month,” says Day. There’s been a big increase during the first few weeks of November. “So far, we’ve been able to meet demands.”

At the soup kitchen, it’s all “to go,” there’s no place to sit and eat, except during the warmer months, where people gather at a picnic table or sit on the curbs or grass. The church has a designated parking area for the kitchen. Signs help direct the flow of traffic. Day says she sees a variety of people. “Homeless—we do have families that can’t make ends meet. We get all walks—people who have jobs, people who know it’s here and use it.”

If you’re homeless in Fort Wayne, where do you go? Especially when it’s cold out? If you have a place to go, that question probably doesn’t cross your mind. But if you are downtown, what are your options? It’s either the fast-food joints or the library, until you are asked to leave. Ave Maria House, opened June 23, gives the homeless a place to go during part of the day. The building, a house at 432 Madison barely a stone’s throw from the Soup Kitchen, looks like a home. Dottie Carpenter, director of Ave Maria House, wanted it that way. The house was vacant, and St. Mary’s decided to buy it to protect the rectory—church officials and members didn’t want it to become a drug house—and thought about what the building could be used for. Carpenter, who has three decades of experience working in various church ministries, wrote a proposal about a year ago and presented it to the parish council in January.

“I wanted to do something different,” says Carpenter, who didn’t want to do another clothing mission. “I prayed a long time to come up with an idea.” Then it occurred to her: where do you go when it’s cold?

The house has the home-like atmosphere that she originally wanted. The wood floors and furnishings and the chatter of people there give it an atmosphere of friends hanging out for coffee and conversation. There are rules posted near the front door, and people are required to sign in. Carpenter says she rarely has problems with people following the rules. “People that come to the house want it to be nice,” she says. “It’s working out really well.”

“Respect and dignity” were the words Carpenter thought of when creating a place for people who had no place to go. Open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. through the week, there are shower facilities and laundry services available. A computer is available for job searching, as well as a phone. Carpenter lets people use the Ave Maria House address if they need a place to get their mail, or to list a residence. Bedrooms upstairs serve as storage, or a quiet place to rest, if the conversations and televisions on the first floor are too much of a distraction. Carpenter says the house’s hours will probably be extended after Thanksgiving.

Carpenter, who was born during the Great Depression, says current economic times are the worst she’s ever seen. Of the people who come to Ave Maria House, she says a great deal of them want to work, but can’t find jobs. If they go to one of the day labor places in town, they might get a few hours a week of work, but it’s not enough to support them.

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