It’s an unimposing structure: the little storefront with a brick facade and red awnings on East 65th Street in the city’s North Broadway/Slavic Village area.
The building’s modest appearance belies its importance.
As inflation has reached a 40-year high, Another Chance of Ohio (ACOO) has been on the front line of helping working poor and other low-income residents who have become overwhelmed by rising costs. Since the inflation surge started in the spring of 2021, the grassroots, faith-based non-profit organization has seen demand nearly double for several of its programs, which include those providing food and clothing.
Economists say inflation tends to disproportionately impact people living on fixed incomes and other people living at or near poverty because more of their budgets must be spent on food, utilities and other essentials, whose prices usually rise at faster rates than those of nonessentials. The federal poverty level is $30,000 for a family of four.
Barbara Anderson, ACOO’s founder and CEO, doesn’t need to rely on economic theory in proving that Greater Cleveland’s low-income residents have been hard hit by high inflation. She has her own barometer. Anderson started the nonprofit in 1990. This means she can compare what’s happening now to every recession since then, including the Great Recession, which ran from December 2007 to June 2009. And, of course, she can compare it to the beginning of the pandemic, which left many jobless.
“I’ve never seen it like this,” Anderson said. “It’s the high inflation. People are having to make very hard choices: ‘If I buy gas, I might not be able to get medicine. If I buy gas, I might not be able to get enough food. But I do need the gas because I’ve got to go to work. I don’t make enough to afford my gas and my food and my utilities.’”
Pandemic supports such as rental assistance and stimulus payments have either ended or are waning. For example, Cuyahoga County announced Jan. 10 that the federal emergency allotment for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) benefits would end in February. When an already frayed safety net rips some more, organizations such as ACOO become the most viable lifeline for many.
300 meals gone in no time
In the fall, an organization contacted the nonprofit, asking to donate 300 prepared meals at the last minute. Anderson and her daughter, Albertonia Adeya, ACOO’s executive director, debated whether to turn down the donation. How could they let enough people know about the meals before they spoiled? The nonprofit didn’t have enough refrigeration space.
Their decision to accept the meals was confirmed when the delivery truck pulled up one afternoon to the building, which is situated in a residential neighborhood. Clusters of residents began gathering near the truck. Workers started unloading the meals with the intention of placing them on carts and rolling them into the building. Residents told them there was no need. They gladly accepted the bulk of the meals before they reached the carts.
Word of the meal give-away traveled quickly.
“The next morning, they were all gone,” Adeya said.
Both Adeya and Anderson were pleased that the meals didn’t go to waste, but they were shocked by how quickly they had disappeared – even with little publicity. In Anderson’s three decades of running ACOO, little has caught her off guard. She’s not some suburban do-gooder. She has lived in the neighborhood for years. Anderson recalls the 1980s, when she and her husband were raising eight children, including four of her sister’s kids.
“We couldn’t even afford the Goodwill,” she said.
Anderson would scavenge for furniture and other castoffs–and receive abundant compliments for the way she fixed them up. The season of financial difficulty motivated her to form a nonprofit where low-income people could be helped with dignity. They could shop for free for clothing, household goods and other items in an environment that resembles a store instead of a series of giveaway bins. The nonprofit keeps stocked, unlocked pantries at the side of the building that people can come to at any time to get food.
Before high inflation, Adeya said, they were wondering whether to keep the pantry program.
“Nobody was messing with [bothering to take] the food,” she said. “The food was expiring.”
Now, the pantry empties out soon after being stocked. Security cameras routinely alert Anderson at 5 a.m., or earlier, that someone is getting food from the pantry. She surmises they are often people headed to work, who come so early because they are too embarrassed to let anyone see them having to rely on handouts.
Lack of choices worsens high inflation
Dolly Parson, an ACOO client and volunteer, relates to their embarrassment. She had always thought the pantries for the neediest. The retiree didn’t consider herself in that category. Though she struggles financially, she still owns a home and a vehicle. In the early days of high inflation, she thought it would be temporary, and she believed she could cope by adjusting her spending habits. She buys cheaper food, drives less and has put off making purchases that are not pressing. None of those efforts have been enough to balance the budget of the retiree caring for a daughter who is “basically close to being disabled.” Parson found herself having to use the pantries.
“That was really hard for me,” she said somberly.
Parson said the prolonged high inflation has altered the relationships of many low-income residents. Before high inflation, she didn’t hesitate to give people a ride, especially to the supermarket. Because there are not any grocery stores nearby, she viewed offering lifts as a community service. Gas prices have not dropped enough for her to give lifts to people who aren’t going “to the same spot” she is.
Communities, like Parson’s, with limited access to affordable healthy food are sometimes called food deserts. In a food desert, there are often no supermarkets, and the corner stores and other establishments carrying groceries usually sell them at higher prices than in areas with competing supermarkets.
There are also other reasons Parson has limited giving rides, especially to people she doesn’t know well.
“Looking at how [financially] desperate people have become, can I really trust you to get in my car?” Parson said. “Because if you think that I have some money, who’s to say that you won’t try to hurt me?”
Parson’s experiences illustrate at least two ways that high inflation has impacted low-income residents. It has increased financial desperation, even among those who were previously struggling but somehow managing to make it. Living in areas with low retail competition has further exacerbated inflation for them.
The latter is not uncommon, said Robert Rich, director of the Center for Inflation Research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. In fact, next to spending more of their budget on essentials than those who are higher-income, having restricted shopping options contributes to higher inflation for those who are lower-income.
“Their ability to be kind of price discriminators, in terms of where they can get their items from, is limited,” Rich said. “So, they just don’t have the ability to substitute goods and services like higher-income households do. All of this tends to result in low-income households facing a higher inflation rate.”
Alana Miller, a home health aide, ACOO client and volunteer, agrees. Miller, who doesn’t have a car, said that she often feels trapped by the high prices for groceries at neighborhood stores, which are often double those in suburban supermarkets,
“The corner stores, the prices are ridiculous,” she said. “So, say I run out of sugar and have to go to one, [a small container] is $4!”
For more detail on inflation, read “Economic numbers offer clues to low-income residents’ struggle with high inflation.”
Shopping for free
Residents have nicknamed ACOO’s building, a converted corner store, the “free store” or the “free shop.” It’s an apt description. Walk inside and the place is reminiscent of a well-kept thrift store. Clothing is neatly hung on racks. There is a women’s section, a men’s section and a children’s section. You can find various items ranging from jewelry and other accessories to over-the-counter medicines and medical supplies. Shoppers never have to pay for the mostly donated items.
In 2022, ACOO recorded about 2,800 visits to its store, nearly double the number from the year before. The nonprofit only accepts registered patrons, who must show need. They’re often referred from the United Way 2-1-1 Help Center and other programs directing people to community resources.
Shirl Williams began shopping at the store last spring. The self-employed caterer said she has struggled because her business hasn’t bounced back from the pandemic.
“This is very helpful,” she said of the store during a visit. “I found clothing for my kids, and I found a couple of sheets. I was happy to find linens because I really needed them.”
The nonprofit has seen demand increase in its other programs as well. For example, new registrants for its Christmas giveaway more than doubled from the years before, and the number of participants in the food and produce program was up nearly 80 percent.
Farai Q. Malianga, an ACOO client and volunteer, is grateful for the help, especially the fresh produce. He had open heart surgery several years ago, and doctors ordered him to eat plenty of fresh produce. However, Malianga said he only has a canned goods budget, especially after prices started soaring.The retiree said eating healthy is still a financial challenge, but the help from ACOO means that he can at least sometimes get fresh produce.
“Canned food has either got too much sugar or too much salt,” he said. “This is where the conflict comes. The doctor tells you what you need to do to be healthy, but your finances dictate what you can do.”
When will high inflation end?
Miller, the ACOO client, said she returned to work to supplement her Social Security benefits. Despite this, she wouldn’t be able to make ends meet without help from ACOO. Miller worries about how long high inflation will last, especially since she will have to move because the public housing complex where she lives is being demolished and rebuilt. She fears not being able to find a new place she can afford.
“I’ve been fortunate enough not to have to pay a light bill for the last seven years because it’s included in my rent,” she said, adding that the inclusion is uncommon. “I don’t know how I’m going to pay the light bill after I move.”
There is some promising news about inflation, said Rich of the Cleveland Fed.
“It looks like there’s some initial evidence to suggest perhaps that inflation may have peaked,” he said.
No one knows how long it will take for things to return to normal.
In the meantime, ACOO will remain committed to helping low-income residents cope with high inflation. Anderson said at times it can be trying, especially when dealing with clients who have come since inflation started increasing. Many of them hold jobs and have difficulty dealing with the fact that they have had to seek help. They are frustrated that they may not be able to fend off slipping into poverty, despite their best efforts.
“People are angry about not having the resources and not knowing, ‘When is this going to end?’” Anderson said. “I think that most of us were really willing to struggle through some things for a certain period of time. But we have to see that there is a rainbow, and we have to see that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”
This story was updated to clarify a comment by Robert Rich, director of the Center for Inflation Research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. The revised comment excludes the line unintentionally attributed to him that said, “There is definitely a lot of uncertainty right now.”