Jeffrey Chambers and his mother were on an early morning shopping trip. They chose bread, cereal and some beef from the shelves. “This place is awesome,” Chambers said.
This is no ordinary grocery store. The items in the food pantry at Mercy’s Gate are free. Chambers is grateful for the help. It wasn’t always like this. Chambers once worked for a federal government archives back East. He moved to Colorado Springs recently. “Mom wanted me here to help me,” he explains. Chambers, 48, retired about two years ago because of his health. He contracted MS and is now in a wheelchair. His mother, 72, has little income. He is in the process of getting financial aid and insurance. It was his first time at Mercy’s Gate, and the experience of depending partly on the generosity of others made him a bit uneasy. But, “They treat you good here,” he said. “You feel welcome.” Mercy’s Gate, which was once called Northern Churches Care, receives some of its support from churches and businesses. But client needs are great and public donations and volunteer help are important. On a recent October day, the agency was packed with clients seeking a variety of services: rent and mortgage assistance, medical and prescription help, clothing vouchers, bus tokens, food, and referrals to education programs and other assistance. The help can save them from homelessness. Many of the families have two wage earners, but low wages still place them at the federal the poverty line. Living from paycheck to paycheck, any unusual auto repair bills, doctor bills, higher than usual utility costs can be disastrous. Jason Dilger, Mercy’s Gate executive director, calls this economic crisis for the working poor “a sleeping giant.” While El Paso County has had considerable economic growth and development, many have been left behind. There are many in the county who are considered the working poor – from military members to minimum wage earners to senior citizens and retired veterans. The nemesis: increasing cost of living, stagnant wages, job competition and job loss, Dilger says. In the Mercy’s Gate office, a construction worker Chris, 45, had just talked to a counselor who had given him an application for a program to help with utilities. He lost his job when an employer left town and had failed to give him his last paycheck. Mercy’s Gate is one of several agencies that sponsor COPE, a utility assistance plan. The counselor also gave him some job hunting tips. Chris said, “We’ve always helped others with donations to charities, and even put dog food in our car for pets belonging to the homeless. Now it is our turn. It’s very humbling. It’s great that Mercy’s Gate is here.”