Penny is terrified at the thought of going on a job interview.
It isn't, she told me, the questions they'll ask her or the tests they may give her. She's embarrassed about how she looks.I met the petite mother of two under the underpass where the hungry are fed Sunday mornings. In her mid-30s, she vibrates with energy. She was bustling about, cleaning dishes and scraping grills. She was one of the poor, she said, but she wanted to "give something back." What she could give was a share of that energy.
When the cleaning was done and the trucks were being loaded, she took a few minutes to go through boxes of clothing stacked off to one side of the serving area.
I started going through the boxes with her, looking for items in her size. But when I held up a pair of corduroy pants, she shook her head.
"What I really need," she told me, "is nice clothes. Clothes I can go out looking for a job in. But I guess if clothing's really nice, people don't give it away much."
I had to agree with her. A good portion of the donated clothing we were going through was either outdated, too casual for a job interview, or too old. And, while the homeless and poor welcome those items, there's a serious need for more classic, durable styles that are appropriate in business settings.
"When I go into a place to ask for a job, I need to look nice. I'm embarrassed to walk in the way I usually dress. And I'm afraid someone will laugh or say something mean," Penny said. "So I just talk myself out of going, sometimes.
"I can't afford clothing. First I've got to take care of my kids, buy food and gas, and pay a few bills. Clothing comes after, but the money never stretches that far."
Penny's not alone. Every week in the Helping Hand column, we run at least a couple of requests for clothing - nice clothing - that people who are struggling to become self-sufficient can wear to work and to school.
The requests come from a number of agencies, including the Division of Family Services and a host of community groups that provide services, assistance and encouragement for low-income families.
With changes caused by a recently passed welfare reform laws, with its related job training and employment options, self-sufficiency has become THE big push of the late '80s. But all the self-sufficiency training and pep talks in the world won't lead to independence if someone is too embarrassed by their clothing to go out and test new skills.
We need to take a whole-person approach to self-sufficiency. Last year I shared a laugh with a young single mother who went through one particular self-sufficiency workshop. One of the segments was on color draping. You know the one: You learn which colors are YOU, whether you're a spring, fall, winter or summer type.
What she really needed was information on how to dress adequately with little or no money. Learning to match her colors was "interesting," but it didn't change her life because she couldn't afford to buy clothing to begin with.
Clothing is available to Utah's homeless or low-income population. Several thrift stores sell clothes very reasonably, and a lot of charitable organizations take in donated articles of clothing and give it away. That clothing serves a vital function, including providing warmth in cold weather.
But there really is a perpetual, serious need for business-like clothing for people who are trying to improve their lives by getting an education or a job. And with the exception of a business-clothing drive by city employees earlier this year, that need tends to go unmet.
I have never believed the old adage that clothing makes the man. I do whole-heartedly believe, however, that clothing can break the man. And proper clothing should be as much a part of caring for those who are working toward self-sufficiency as medical and food assistance are.
I've been told that I advocate giving the poor a free ride, and that's not true. But I don't see the point in giving people skills they will never have an opportunity to use because of some other, easily-dealt-with problem. Like clothing.
It's like building a house. You need the proper tools.