An Islamic humanitarian group held a nationwide campaign this weekend to assist tens of thousands of homeless people.
The effort to serve at least 25,000 homeless in as many as 19 major cities was carried out by the nonprofit group Islamic Relief-USA based in Buena Park, California.
The group's Humanitarian Day, which was observed on both Saturday and Sunday this year, brought Muslim volunteers into the streets to provide food, clothing, and medicines to America's poorest, even as the volunteers themselves continued to fast in observation of the holy month of Ramadan.
This is the third consecutive year that Islamic Relief activists have organized humanitarian efforts during Ramadan. Last year, while fasting during the daytime, the volunteers reached out to an estimated 18,000 people in a number of cities.
As they did in 2006, this month, many activists are taking essentials to the homeless in local neighborhoods, such as a warm meal or gift package including hygiene and emergency kits, bath towels, clothing, blankets, ponchos, and toys for children.
With some help from government entities and religious organizations, they are also providing free HIV/AIDS screenings, flu vaccinations, educational materials, and referral information to those in dire need of such assistance.
Last year the organization worked with more than 100 partners to organize volunteer efforts across the country, according to Clareen Menzies, Islamic Relief's domestic projects manager.
"It was something I will probably carry for the rest of my life," said one of the group's first-time volunteers. "Physically helping people less fortunate than I am was something different from giving zakah (mandatory almsgiving for Muslims)."
According to a Census Bureau report released last month, nationwide, more than 36 million people -- or nearly 13 percent of the total U.S. population -- lived in poverty in 2006.
Among those officially considered "poor," over one third are children, most of them nonwhite minorities such as African Americans, Latinos, and Asians.
The data reveals continued inequality and concentration of wealth in the United States, with the top 20 percent of households receiving over 50 percent of the nation's income, while the lowest 20 percent got just over 3 percent.
According to the data, more than 8 percent of non-Hispanic whites, about 10 percent of Asians, over 20 percent of Hispanics, and some 24 percent of African Americans are "poor."
Recent studies point out that more than 23 million Americans need to look for emergency food assistance every year, about 13 million of whom are children whose parents do not earn enough to pay for food, rent, heat, health care, and transportation.
Reacting to the Census Bureau's findings last month, many antipoverty groups reiterated their demand for a raise in the minimum wage and called for congressional action to make the minimum wage "a true living wage."
"Reducing poverty is not rocket science," said Roberta Spivek of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization involved in numerous campaigns for economic and social rights.
"We can go a long way by investing in education, health care, job training, and housing," she added in a statement that also raised critical questions about Washington's continuation of the war in Iraq, which, according to the group's calculations, is costing U.S. taxpayers over $700 million every day.
By contrast, Islamic Relief's Ramadan efforts appeared driven more by moral and religious concerns than by larger political motives.
"My main goal wasn't to hand out shirts or supplies," the first-time volunteer said of her experience helping the homeless. "It was just to bring a smile to their faces and bring a little hope to their lives. The people were so polite, thankful, and humorous that I couldn't help but smile to myself."
This year's Islamic Relief activities served communities in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Boston; Chicago; Dallas; Detroit; Elizabeth, New Jersey; Fort Thompson, South Dakota; Houston; Kalamazoo, Michigan; Las Vegas; Minneapolis; New Orleans; New York; Philadelphia; Phoenix; Seattle; and Washington, DC.
***ONE WORLD U.S.A