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Too well-off for aid, but still hungry

The world stopped making sense for Theresa Drebes a few years back. Because of crushing medical bills, she and her husband couldn't afford enough food, yet were unable to receive food stamps because the federal government said they brought in too much money.

The world stopped making sense for Theresa Drebes a few years back.

Because of crushing medical bills, she and her husband couldn't afford enough food, yet were unable to receive food stamps because the federal government said they brought in too much money.

"I'm not in poverty, but I am poor," said Drebes, 60, who lives in Lansdale, Montgomery County. "Just pray to God you don't fall into a situation like ours."

To be poor is to live in a whirlwind of want, unsettled and insecure. For some, there is help, but not enough. So they fall through little-seen holes in the safety net.

A majority of people in Montgomery County who say they experience hunger make too much money to get government food assistance - an estimated 58 percent, according to a survey by Chicago-based Feeding America, the largest hunger-relief agency in the United States.

Of the nation's 3,142 counties, Montgomery ranks 28th highest where the majority of hungry people are ineligible for SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the name for food stamps) and other programs, the survey found.

In this area, Bucks and Burlington Counties also fall into that category, with 57 percent of people who say they have experienced hunger having incomes deemed too high to access SNAP benefits. In Chester County, the figure is 53 percent.

In all, there are just 115 such counties nationwide, Feeding America reported.

Usually the problem occurs in relatively well-off counties like Montgomery, Bucks, and Burlington. The median income is nearly $80,000 annually in all three places. More of people's paychecks is eaten up by the cost of living in a place with higher rents, mortgage bills, and taxes, said Adele LaTourette, director of the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition. Suburban life also requires a car, a major expense. That leaves little for food.

Conversely, in Philadelphia, where 26 percent are poor - the highest rate among the nation's top-10 cities - just 21 percent of hungry people are ineligible for help.

In Montgomery County, many lost jobs in the 2008 recession, and have since found work that doesn't pay nearly the same as their previous positions, said Rabbi Andrea Merow, who helped create the Mitzvah Food Pantry at Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park.

"Yet it's still too much money for food stamps, but they continue to have high car payments and mortgages, so they're caught in this terrible situation where they can't pay their bills," Merow said.

People with health issues can find themselves in a downward spiral, said Kathy Fisher, policy manager of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger.

"Hunger is hidden in the suburbs," Fisher said, "and hungry people feel more isolated."

In downtown Lansdale, renovated shops sit on a Main Street that also features shuttered stores and weeds sprouting on the sidewalk.

Both poor and well-off folks share the North Penn School District, children coming from small apartments as well as from stately brick and stone homes.

In the center of town sits Manna on Main Street, a food pantry in a low-slung brick building that draws a crowd.

Inside, Drebes, a regular visitor, explained how her life got this way.

"I was always a worker," said the diminutive Lower Merion High School graduate. Born to an industrious Italian American family in South Philadelphia - her father ran his own ship-radar business - Drebes said she was instilled with a strong work ethic.

She worked a series of clerical jobs, and became a financial assistant at a bank before she was laid off.

Her first husband died, and her current husband, Chris, developed a rare condition, arteriovenous malformations, in which abnormal, snarled tangles of blood vessels in the brain caused three hemorrhages and a stroke. He has undergone 10 brain surgeries in five years.

Drebes, who is estranged from her 30-year-old son, herself developed disabling depression. Unable to work, both she and Chris, a former security guard, receive federal disability payments totaling $2,700 a month.

That's $32,400 annually, slightly above the income level that triggers SNAP benefits for a family of two with disabilities, which is $31,860.

Nearly half the couple's income gets swallowed by the $1,200 monthly rent they pay for a 950-square-foot one-bedroom apartment, not unusual in a high-income county.

Most of the rest of the money goes to utilities and a $15,000 debt for Chris' expenses that insurance doesn't cover.

Incredulous that she is in these straits, Drebes struggles not to be despondent.

"I'm a good person," said Drebes, who lost a house in Bala Cynwyd because her troubles made it impossible to pay the mortgage. "Poor people are not who you think we are. We're not lazy, on drugs or alcohol.

"This is due to things beyond our control. I want to get back to my middle class again."

She said that without twice-monthly visits to Manna, she'd be in trouble.

Many Manna clients are working poor who make a bit more than the SNAP threshold, said Suzan Neiger Gould, the agency's executive director.

"They struggle to eat," she said. "The pantry becomes their supplement."

Drebes is taking life-coaching classes through Manna to help her budget better and maintain a healthy attitude. She says it's working, although she can't completely chase away the blues.

"You do feel angry this whole thing happened after a lifetime of working," she said. "We're stuck. What do you do?"