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Feature Story

Fighting poverty

1/4/2017

depper-8America has been waging war on poverty since the Lyndon Johnson Administration when the 36th president famously declared “war” on this abstract idea during his state of the union address in January of 1964. And while America has long since bailed on the other war it was fighting at the time — the conflict in Vietnam — many of its citizens remain mired in the struggle against insufficient funds.

The “poverty line” is an unofficial term generally referring to the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), a measurement based on household income set by The Department of Health and Human Services to help determine eligibility for food stamps, healthcare, Head Start and other government programs and benefits. The number is set federally and stays the same across the 48 contiguous states. It currently ranges from about $12,000 for individuals to about $28,000 for a family of five.

$11,880 for individuals

$16,020 for a family of two

$20,160 for a family of three

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$24,300 for a family of four

$28,440 for a family of five

$32,580 for a family of six

$36,730 for a family of seven

$40,890 for a family of eight

Source: obamacarefacts.com/2016-2017-federal-poverty-guidelines

$7.25 Iowa’s minimum wage — Iowa’s minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. Calculated for a 52-week span at 40 hours per week, the minimum annual salary for a full-time employee would be $15,000 per year.

Both sides of the political aisle speak of the need to find a solution for poverty, but what can an ordinary person do? No individual person can win the war on his or her own, but Des Moines has a few fine citizens who are each doing their part — plus a little extra.

POVERTY — WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

Derives from an old French word “poverte,” which means to be miserable, or wretched. In Latin, poverty means “pauper” or “poor.”

THE THANKFUL LEPER

What do Tony Romo, Jesus Christ and the United States government all have in common? Meet Bobby Depper, The Thankful Leper.

Depper currently lives in a Des Moines apartment, but just a few years ago he was a drug-addicted homeless man struggling to survive while battling AIDS and living behind a dumpster in Dallas, Texas.

“I thought for sure I would die there,” he said.

depper-1He says that Romo, Christ and government assistance helped free him from dumpster diving and addiction, and now he’s paying it forward, working to help others do the same.

While mired in poverty and addiction, Depper remembers various Christian groups offering him food, handouts and pamphlets, but he didn’t have ears to hear.

“I just wanted to know what you had in your pocket,” he admits to thinking. “But I kept wondering if maybe there was something about this ‘God’ guy.”

The seed was sown, and it began to take root late one night as Depper reached his breaking point.

“It was 2:15 in the morning in the middle of a thunderstorm,” Depper remembers. “And no one else was willing to talk to me but this God guy, so I said, ‘God? If you’re real, I need your help. If you’re real, this is your fault.’ ”

No miracles occurred, and no plagues erupted. Instead Depper looked around the space he’d been occupying behind the dumpster — and he started to see.

“Everyone has their own story,” he says, listing the more common reasons such as being a single mother, abandonment, mental illness and disabilities. “Mine is unique in that I made some bad choices in my life.”

He left home at age 15 and hooked up with a crime ring whose members introduced him to drugs.the-former-bobby-depper

“And that was it,” he says. “I was hooked.”

His moment of clarity behind the dumpster began with anger toward God.

“I begged him to come down. I wanted to fight him,” he laughs. “And as I was tearing up my campsite, I saw all the purses of the people that I had stolen from, and the pictures started falling out of the wallets, and I started seeing their families. And then I saw the needles over there with my blood on them, and I started to realize that it was my fault I was there. And that’s when I felt sorrow.”

Depper remembers seeing a reflection of his emaciated cheeks, dirty skin and cold, sad eyes.

“I saw the way I looked, and I realized this was my doing,” he says. “God didn’t do it. I did all of it. And I started to cry.”

Depper admits to being on drugs that night. But he has no doubts that he apologized to God for all he’d done.

“It didn’t stop the rain from coming,” he says.

Depressed and discouraged, Depper climbed into the dumpster to get out of the rain. He cried himself to sleep and now believes it was while wiping away these tears that he contracted a rare eye infection that led to even worse situation.

Upon waking, his eye was in pain, and he knew he needed to get medical attention. While begging for bus fare to go to the hospital, an onlooker approached from behind and offered him a $100 bill. Depper couldn’t believe his eyes — it was Tony Romo, quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys.

Cowboys fans might doubt the probability that Romo was used by the divine, but not Depper.

“I think that was God’s way of answering me,” he says. (The Houston Chronicle reports contacting Cowboys spokesman Rich Dalrymple, who said Romo remembers giving Depper $100 but prefers not to speak publicly about his acts of kindness.)

Depper stayed in the hospital for several weeks, eventually losing vision in one eye. But the hospital’s staff helped him register for social security disability benefits, which he now uses to pay for an apartment and help others in need.

“I don’t even have a bed,” he gently points out. He sacrificed his room so Daniel Cuttill, a friend and de facto son, could get off the street. And Bobby is proud of the progress he’s seen.

“He has a job, and he’s making wise choices with his money,” he said. “He’s saving up his money, and he’s even helping out with the groceries now and helping to clean the house.”

Depper says Cuttill could soon attain an apartment on his own, in which case Depper would put bunk beds in the bedroom and try to get the same results with two other disadvantaged people. He points out that he doesn’t need a bed. His couch is already an upgrade from the dumpster.

“In order to gain true lifestyle reinvention, you have to do three things,” he says. “You have to change your playmates, change your playgrounds and change your schedule.”

Depper says he works to help pull people off to the side of their old life and to keep the person’s other world at a distance.

“As you can see, I’ve dedicated my whole life to this,” he says.

The living room at his apartment is filled with bookcases where he stores backpacks, school supplies, sleeping bags, heaters and groceries to hand out to anyone in need.

“I power my ministry with relationships,” he says. “There are no files. I trust you, and you trust me. Instead of doing this with a large number of people, I do it with fewer people with a greater chance of success.”

WHAT COULD SOMEONE HAVE DONE TO PREVENT DEPPER’S 30 YEARS OF MISERY?

“An open heart and an open home,” he says.

So what can people do for others need it the most? Depper says not to give cash handouts to people with signs.

“You can ask them in to Walmart for coffee or a sandwich. Get their name, talk to them and invite them to church,” he said.

Or support his Wednesday night meal for the homeless. Depper said he does not accept monetary donations himself, but aid can be sent directly to Glenda, the Crestwood Baptist Church treasurer, at 3717 Forest Ave.

“Focus on what you can do now, today,” he says. “And let God do the rest.”

Then Depper utters a sequence of words rarely used in the English language.

“I don’t want cash,” he says.

Depper prefers tangible items like diapers, heaters, clothes and backpacks. And gift cards to Walmart so he can buy specific clothes sizes and shoe sizes when people need specific clothes for work or prescription reading glasses.

Those who want to help can also go to his Amazon wish list for the durable goods for the needy at this address:

www.amazon.com/registry/wishlist/HWDBYZG2LM0P/ref=cm_sw_r_fa_awwl_t2_ujsdybE0DYSZE

DATE NIGHT — SOME LIKE IT HOT

marcia-ron-peelerMonday night is date night for the husband and wife team of Ron and Marcia Peeler. But don’t expect to see candles and linen table cloths. Instead, this dynamic duo uses “date night” to go to the local food co-op. The groceries they buy in bulk will become beef stew, ham balls, salads, desserts and varying kinds of hearty and healthy fare for anyone who asks. The two serve a downtown monthly lunch at Cathedral Church of St. Paul and a weekly dinner served at First Methodist Church in Indianola.

“For me, this is church,” says Marcia. “The act of service is a huge component of church for me.”

She says she grew up watching her parents serve in similar capacities, and she and Ron have attempted to instill that same passion for service to the various youth groups they’ve led through the years.

“I get more out of it than I feel like I give,” she says.

An example of one evening’s offerings includes beef stew, cornbread, salad bar and dessert. The meal is free to anyone who wants it, but due to Marcia’s keen eye for a deal and Ron’s savvy practicality, the actual cost stays low as well.

“It almost always averages $1.65,” Marcia says of a typical meal’s cost. “We try and do hearty meals.”

She says the group of volunteers who serve alongside her and Ron have given away an average of 105 to 110 meals week since the summer of 2014.

The Peelers have also been serving a lunch downtown every month for a decade.

“We’ve had every first Friday for a long time,” says Marcia. “Maybe 10 years.”

The church pays for the Open Table, and the funding is done through donations.

And what about romantic dinners?

“After the shopping, we usually go out to eat somewhere,” laughs Marcia.

MARCIA PEELER: What does poverty look like in Indianola? She says people aren’t necessarily hungry with stomach pains, but they aren’t eating well.

“The cheaper food is often not the food that’s good for you,” she says. “This helps stretch their household food budget by not having to pay for this meal.”

THE STRUGGLE IS REAL — GO TO WORK, EVERYDAY

Some people feed the needy, and others take them into their home. But for people like Will Cronk, 30, just keeping himself and his family on the right side of the poverty line is a worthy mission.

“I started off with a shitty life,” he says. “A lot of abuse when I was a kid. Bad stuff. My dad was in federal prison, and my mom had boyfriend after boyfriend that liked to beat us, so I grew up tough as nails.”

He says he drank too much in his younger years, suffering from alcohol poisoning on more than one occasion.will-cronk

“My heart was stopped,” he remembers. “But they shocked me back to life.”

Cronk works as a manager at the downtown Burger King. He’s been employed there for more than a year, and he says he has life moving in the right direction.

“I worked my ass off,” he says.

Cronk reminds himself that one doesn’t have to live in, or behind, a dumpster in order to look poverty in the eye. He has a home, he has a family, a paycheck and a full belly, but he’s one accident from losing everything. He says he makes about $20,000 per year, which, along with the similar amount his significant other also brings home, puts this household of five barely above the poverty line.

But even while working as many as 100 hours per week, he says his savings account is $22 below zero.

“Fast food doesn’t pay,” he says.

THE IOWA LINE

The poverty line for a family of four is $24,000. The official poverty rate in 2015 was 13.5 percent, down 1.2 percentage points from 14.8 percent in 2014. Iowa checks in at 10.4 percent. (Source: www.census.gov/topics/income-poverty/poverty.html)

Citing Polk County’s highest cost of living in the state, the board of supervisors recently affirmed the first of three measures aimed at increasing the minimum wage gradually to $10.75 by January 2019 in Polk County only. ♦

 

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