People who live in poverty are routinely faced with tough choices, like whether to buy food or pay the utility bills. For the poor, items like shaving cream, shampoo, and deodorant may be luxuries that are simply out of reach. But an effort is underway in Wichita to provide the basic hygiene supplies that many of us take for granted.
The Planeview neighborhood, on Wichita’s south side, is home to some of the city’s poorest families. Many of the homes here were built during World War II as temporary housing for people working in the nearby aircraft factories. Now they house mostly people who are down on their luck, and looking for a place where rent is cheap.
“Rent is typically about $350 a month, and that often involves no background check, no signing a lease," says Janet Johnson. "People who are in dire straits can at least get a roof over their head out here in this neighborhood…albeit, it’s not always the greatest roof.”
Johnson oversees city services for this diverse neighborhood, where 38 different languages are spoken. Johnson says it’s common for families here to have their utilities disconnected.
“We did have a little boy. He was a 6th or 7th grader, and we noticed he would come over here every day in the summer with plastic bottles, and fill them up at our drinking fountain," she says. "When asked why he was doing that, he said, well, my little brother and sister need something to drink.”
Johnson also says personal hygiene products are a rare commodity for families in such deep poverty
“These products are extremely expensive, and typically you can only buy them in fairly large quantities," she says. "First of all, you can’t pay for it with your food assistance, so it’s gonna come out of your pocket. So there’s a choice to be made there: Do I pay my water bill, or do I buy the laundry soap?”
But now the Kansas Food Bank, based in Wichita, is helping to meet the need for those products—thanks to the generosity of an anonymous donor. He gave the Wichita Community Foundation $40,000 to launch a mobile hygiene pantry—a truck loaded with hygiene products.
“He had heard of programs like this in other cities, and the idea that our funder loved is the mobile pantry can go to where the need is," says foundation head Shelly Prichird. "When you don’t have money to buy food or hygiene products, you don’t necessarily have money to go put gas in your car to get there, either.”
Prichard connected the donor with the Kansas Food Bank, which already had trucks for food distribution, along with a strong network of volunteers. Food Bank Director Brian Walker used the money to buy generic hygiene products in bulk.
“So what we did was we had a group of volunteers, and we pre-made these sacks. So these are the items that everybody will get," says Walker. "There’s 22 loads of laundry detergent, and then just your regular big-sized thing of toothpaste, which will last a family a pretty long time. A 16-ounce bottle of shampoo, four-roll pack of toilet paper, a thing of bar soap, and a thing of deodorant.”
In addition, there’s a collection of items families can choose if they need them.
“If they have babies, we have diaper choices," he says. Not everybody needs razors, and not everybody needs baby wipes, so they can choose those items that they do need
According to Walker, the quantities are not enough to last a full month, but they may help people get by long enough to avoid choices that might seem unthinkable to those who have enough.
“I just know that I wouldn’t want to have to choose the dishwashing soap that works best in my hair so I can have shampoo, or reuse a disposable diaper, or, you know, not being able to bathe with bar soap," he says. "I mean, none of us would like that, and so if we can just make life a little bit easier for these folks, and help ‘em along the way, that’s what we’re here to do.”
The first mobile hygiene pantry pulled into the Planeview neighborhood last month. Despite the need, the turnout was less than expected. 400 blue, plastic grocery bags of supplies were loaded onto the truck. Only 70 were given out.
“We knew going into that neighborhood that there’s a lot of trust issues, and so some of that is just building trust with folks who live down there," says Debi Kreutzman, the Kansas Food Bank’s Community Relations Manager. "So we knew we would have a little bit of concern, you know, folks wondering exactly, well, what are we going to have to prove? What am I going to have to show in order to get help?”
Kreutzman says all people had to show was some form of I.D., or something that had their address on it. She says flyers advertising the mobile hygiene pantry were posted in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese, but there are 35 other languages spoken by residents of Planeview.
“We did ask our guests as they were coming how they heard about the truck," she says. "Some of our guests saw the flyer, and several of them said, ‘My friend just called me’, so we know that those numbers next time are probably going to explode.”
Plans call for the mobile hygiene pantry to visit a low-income neighborhood in Wichita the third Saturday of every month. They’ll be back in Planeview again this Saturday.