Tim Warner quit a corporate job to minister to people living in poverty. All photographs by Brooks Kraft
The first time Tim Warner went knocking on doors, he had on the navy-blue suit he’d worn to the office that day. It was pouring, so he’d put on a long raincoat and a felt fedora. He was carrying a black umbrella.
He got out of his car in front of the Nob Hill Apartments in Long Branch, a predominantly immigrant neighborhood a few miles from downtown Silver Spring. There, his colleagues were getting ready to pair up and approach people they’d never met. They looked at Warner and laughed.
What were you thinking? Warner said to himself. You look like an immigration official who’s coming to lock them up.
“Sorry,” he said to his coworkers, taking off his tie. “I should have known.”
Warner’s job was to reach people in Montgomery County who weren’t being reached, low-income residents who might need help and not know how to get it. As a minister, he’d tried to clean up street corners in Baltimore and asked people panhandling in DC to have lunch with him. It’s relationships that transform people, he likes to say.
That night, Warner met a man from Honduras who worked 16 hours a day driving an airport limousine. He talked with young people from Togo and Ghana who were enrolled at Montgomery College and had money for books but not food.
People in Montgomery County probably know more about poverty in Africa than they do about the need right here, he thought later.
Since then, he’s knocked on more than 1,000 doors in one of the nation’s richest counties. He’s found families at home in the dark, living rooms without furniture, two-bedroom apartments sleeping 12. He’s heard of mothers saving money by filling baby bottles with mostly water and met kids for whom a snow day means a day without lunch.
This, he says, is the other Montgomery County.
Poverty in a wealthy suburb doesn’t look like it does in the inner city—you won’t see gutted buildings and boarded-up windows. But it’s there, a few miles from the Saks Fifth Avenue in Chevy Chase, not far from the million-dollar condos in downtown Bethesda, sharing a classroom with middle-schoolers in $100 Ugg boots.
At a January tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. at Strathmore music center in North Bethesda, county executive Isiah Leggett spoke of an increasing gap between the rich and the poor. “Hidden among this general affluence are people who are hurting,” he said. “There are more students in Montgomery County Public Schools eligible for free and reduced-price meals than there are students in the entire DC public-school system.”
Nearly a third of the county’s 144,000 public-school students receive meal benefits. To qualify, a family of four must have a yearly income of less than $41,000. At Broad Acres Elementary in Silver Spring, more than 90 percent of students fall into that category.
About 7 percent of the nearly one million people who live in Montgomery County fall below the federal poverty guidelines: about $18,500 for a single parent and two children, $26,000 for two adults with three children.
Many residents earn too much to qualify for help from the federal government but not enough to pay their bills. Over the past three years, the county’s Department of Health and Human Services has seen a 60-percent increase in applications for food stamps and other forms of assistance—available to legal residents only—but it has also seen a steady increase in the number of denials.
Warner knows firefighters, police officers, nurses, and teachers who can’t afford to live where they work. Montgomery County, which has a median household income of nearly $94,000, has one of the highest costs of living in the country: A single mother with two children has to earn $68,000 a year to meet her basic needs.
“If you sit back and think about it, you have to say, ‘Who are these folks working in the pizza parlor? Who are the people driving taxis?’ ” says Ruth O’Sullivan, who runs a public-housing program in Rockville. She recently opened the waiting list for three- and four-bedroom units and received 2,000 applications in three days.
Warner, who works with faith communities in the county executive’s Office of Community Partnerships, says the challenge in a county of extremes is getting the people who aren’t in need to notice those who are.
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