PERRY: Ben Carson sees the future of pandemic relief in an Aurora food bank today

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Touring an Aurora food bank and community center, Dr. Ben Carson illustrated how jarring it can be when good things come from bad things.

The idiosyncratic U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development on Friday visited the food and clothing bank run by the Aurora Interfaith Community Services agency just off East Colfax Avenue. The venerable coalition of about 30 churches and an army of volunteers have been handing out food, clothing, aid and cheerful sympathy in the city since 1968.

Since the pandemic crisis rolled over Aurora in March, they’ve stepped up to become a major source of sustenance in the city. A cooperative effort between Interfaith and the City now hands over five days worth of groceries to about 500 families a week at new mobile food banks. Each week, Interfaith and Aurora, backed by heavy-hitting regional sponsors and dedicated helpers, roll out to area high schools and pile free groceries in the cars of anyone who needs food. No questions asked.

That’s a lot of people right now, says Interfaith Executive Director Christina Stimson. Besides handing over groceries for about 2,000 meals a week, the center sees a steady stream of people out of work or out of luck stop by at the center just off Colfax.

On Friday, volunteers were sorting and unloading food and clothes for the operation about the size of a small-town grocery and dry-goods store. 

Carson packed plastic bags alongside volunteers, marveling about how much food people were able to get through the service. In that thinking-out-loud way Carson has perfected, he mused about whether there was any charge to people for the food.

“And all these clothes are free?” he asked while touring a virtual department store filled with all kinds of attire.

Almost all the clothing comes from donations. Some of the food is donated from the community, but the bulk of it comes from the Food Bank of the Rockies and other agencies like We Don’t Waste, Secor Cares, Colorado Pet Pantry, Aurora Animal Shelter and even Aurora Water.

The money for the growing number of massive food purchases for programs like this one come from what President Trump accurately touts as the largest relief package in the nation’s history. More than $12 billion was earmarked for HUD. Of that Denver and Aurora have received about $20 million in direct funding so far.

Stimson explained that the federal CARES Act money is critical to their being able to roll bags of food to the curb on Clinton Street or pass them through car windows during weekly handouts. 

“So what happens after the need passes?” Carson wondered, gesturing to the large and solid AICS operation.

Passes? Later, when pressed on the comment, he seemed disconnected that this neighborhood and this organization have had a long, long history of people desperately needing food and people generously providing it.

Even months before the pandemic, advocates for food security and the homeless were sounding alarms. The cost of living and stagnant wages in the metro area were creating a perfect storm. The pandemic simply blew the cover off of what was already a looming calamity.

Pressed, Carson said he sees that as the pandemic crisis ebbs, there has to be a “sustainable” effort to help people after the virus threat eases and goes away, and the problems don’t.

That may sound simple, but the idea of sustainable assistance for ailing Americans is pretty novel for the government, especially this one. The Trump Administration has always made it seem that problems like hunger and homelessness are pretty much one-and-done dilemmas and not eternal quagmires. Maybe seeing warehouses filled with food and long lines of people desperately waiting for it has made even this government realize that America has serious problems with poverty that won’t go away with the virus.

It’s not unlike the fact that police brutality and the abuse of black Americans at the hands of law enforcers has been a critically serious problem in Colorado and across the nation for generations.

It may be the pandemic, on top of the ghastly video of the murder of George Floyd, that inspired Colorado to push through police reforms that seemed unthinkable just a few days ago. The nation seems poised to do the same thing at the federal level. Despite the heartache and agony caused by Floyd’s murder and the tsunami of protests that followed, real, permanent change is now possible and even probable.

Just a few months ago, similar anguished cries about the gruesome death of Elijah McClain at the hands of Aurora police never made it past city borders. This week, the entire nation has learned about the tragedy. City lawmakers who nervously pondered the disaster before are now demanding answers and change.

Sure, there’s a long way to go. When I pointed out to Carson that local advocates for the downtrodden are petrified about mass homelessness after the Colorado Legislature failed to keep evictions at bay, beyond June, Carson said the answer there can’t come just from the federal government.

It’s going to take the combined effort of federal, state and local governments, he said. The last two of those don’t have any money, though. That perfect storm is taking shape because most rental properties are businesses, and businesses without income are just hobbies. Few people or companies are able to be hobbyist landlords. Empty houses and apartments, however, don’t pay rent. Seems like federal programs to pay the rent for those out of work because of the pandemic would be a win-win proposal.

We didn’t get there, as Carson needed to move on.

He did, however, see these problems as solvable and even opportunities. 

When asked if he saw President Trump’s insistence to hold a campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla, on Juneteenth next week as bad optics or insensitive, he countered quickly.

“I see it as an opportunity” for the president to showcase how a healing economy can heal an ailing nation.

I’m not seeing it yet. But stalwart critics of handing out food to the needy, just because they say they’re needy, are packing groceries for them. And die-hard opponents of meaningful police reform are lobbying for it late on the floor of the state House.

I’ll keep an open mind that bleachers filled with MAGA-cap clad Trump fans — who have seen protests only as race-riots — will fill the hearts of minorities in Tulsa and across the nation, who this far haven’t been much impressed.

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