Hunger grows this Christmas Day - Tucson News Now

Hunger grows this Christmas Day

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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) -

The number of people being served free meals this Christmas is higher than ever before.

It's been said so many times in past years that some people may be indifferent.

But the numbers don't lie.

In 2008, the Salvation Army served 2,000 meals on Christmas Day.

This year, the number is approaching 4,000.

The picnic in Santa Rita Park is bigger than ever before.

They will be serving 1,000 hamburgers and 500 pounds of chicken.

The picnic started 15 years ago when Roy Aros and a few friends bought a few dozen frozen burgers and cooked them in the park for a few homeless.

As word of mouth spreads, the event gets bigger every year.

The free events get larger and larger.

It would be easy to assume that's because the need continues to grow.

That's conjecture but probably not far from the truth.

Tucson, as was reported by the Census Bureau, has the 6th highest poverty rate in America.

Not a proud statistic but it would explain the large increases in those wanting a hot meal on Christmas Day.

"It's my first time coming," Elizabeth Gomez says of her visit to the Tucson Convention Center for the Salvation Army dinner. "My friends told me about it."

She joined thousands of other first time attendees many of whom never thought this would be how they'd spend Christmas Day.

"We had several families come to us and say this is our first time," says Major Edward Markham of the Salvation Army.

He says the families told him "last year we were here donating and this year we have to ask for the assistance we need."

Many families are just a job loss or health crisis away from hunger.

And in a town where poverty is so pervasive, the numbers go up very quickly.

"It just makes you feel good when you can help people who are less fortunate than you," says Aros. "These people really, really need help."

The difference in the two events is stark but in many ways they are the same.

The Salvation Army serves many families, children with their parents, predominate the crowd.

Whereas, the people in the park are more hard core homeless, men mostly who choose to lead the lifestyle and shun the services available.

But they have hunger in common.

"I thank the Lord for this," says one of the homeless, the alcohol on his breath very apparent.

Another, who slurs his words, and also smells of alcohol, clutches the new sleeping blanket he got from Aros and complains his last one had been stolen.

They need sleeping bags to survive the cold, night air.

"I can meet new people here, people in the community," says Gomez clutching her daughter.

She's interested in finding out what services are available to her and her family.

"I really try to talk to every person so they have a complete understanding of our program", says Elsa Cocoa, holding up a blue flyer from the University of Arizona's Mobile Health Program.

She explains many of the new people in the Salvation Army crowd are not aware they can get free or low cost health care.

"We ask for a donation of $20 but if they don't have it, we understand," she says.

The mobile clinic will take a dollar or two.

But for many families, it's the only health care they have "especially for the children," she says.

She'll inform the people they can get help for diabetes or heart disease for a couple of dollars.

"It keeps them out of the emergency room," she says.

The numbers grow and the need grows.

The Salvation Army will also deliver 500 meals to shut in's by using volunteer drivers.

But everyone is invited, even if the meal is not the top priority.

"It's not just the homeless or the people down on their luck," says Markham. "But it's also a place where, if you find yourself alone, you can come share the mealtime."

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