It is difficult to imagine the cold and wet, the isolation and the alienation. Homelessness seems so distant to many of us. We ask ourselves, “How can this happen?” And yet it can, and it does.
For diverse and sometimes complex reasons, it happens to ordinary people. And sadly, over time, the streets disconnect them from the rest of us. Homelessness too often and too easily destroys the human spirit.
People in communities across America want to live in a place where they have a chance to thrive. This is true in all kinds of places: small towns, rural areas, urban neighborhoods, American Indian Reservations, and others.
People talk about it in different ways. But when they talk about what holds their community back, one thing that comes up is poverty. Poverty is everywhere. It may look different….but there are things about poverty that look the same in all these places.
Poverty may look different to each of us as well. A single parent may see the cost of housing in terms of how many jobs it takes to pay for a place to live. To a senior who lived through the great depression, poverty may not look all that bad. For people who live on tribal lands, losing their culture and land may be worse than the lack of money.
And here in Alamance County:
Mary has been coming to ACAC on and off for the past several months. This past week she received some fresh milk and cereal because she didn’t have enough money to feed her little girls. “It was a blessing because it’s good food; the people are very nice and give you what you need, and they have things that kids like,” says Mary. “My husband works but at the end of the month we just run out of money. I wouldn’t know what to do if I didn’t have Allied Churches.”This story, our stories are more than stories about poverty; they are stories about relationships and communities. As we continue to build and rebuild Burlington and Alamance County, we should stop for a moment – step back and ask ourselves:
Why must we value today, affordability? Why must we value affordability in Burlington’s changing communities? Why is affordability of incredible importance? For me, we must value affordability because beyond anything else, we value people. It makes us people who are related in the very essence of our being, people who have to live in community, in relationship to one another.
We value shelter. We need to respect the primary demand to have food and to have medical care; the demand to be clothed, according to seasonal variations wherever we live; the demand to be sheltered, not only against the weather and other extremities for protection, but also to find a place where we can learn what it means to live in an ever broader and larger community.
We value family and community because we realize, protect, and sustain our dignity and our rights precisely in relationship with others. And the basic building block of community is the family. Housing harbors families who need to be supported and housing exists in the communities that need to be fostered in order to protect those families.
And, we value opportunity. Communities connect to economic and political systems. And where houses are placed has a direct effect on wealth, education, employment, health, transportation, and safety. Housing is linked to opportunity, both individual and social.
The concern that brings us together around poverty reaches out to many more basic concerns, to social and structural change. When we advocate for affordable housing, for example, we are really advocating for people, for families, for community and for opportunity. And when we develop affordable housing, we are really developing people and families, community and opportunity. If we truly respect human dignity, and we want to protect basic rights, support families, foster community, and promote opportunity, we will value affordable housing.
Mary’s story of Allied Churches illustrates the vital role that charities play. Mary’s family needs food today, not a debate about international economics. People who care about hunger and housing must respond directly – by helping a family in need, volunteering at a community agency or supporting private agencies that assist poor people here and in other countries. But effective help for homeless people, hungry people, people living in poverty, walks on two legs – the leg of charity and the leg of public policy. People of good will must respond to immediate needs with immediate help; but the fight against homelessness & hunger, against poverty, won’t move forward if they (if we) don’t also use the other leg and advocate for better governmental policies.
To conclude, I am reminded of the words of Martin Luther King: “A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
In the United States, there are approximately 400,000 children in foster care, and they spend, on average, two years in the system. Although North Carolina has seen a decrease in the number of children in foster care over the past five years, there were still almost 14,000 in 2010. Through no fault of their own, children in foster care are victims of abuse, neglect, and severe trauma, almost always at the hands of those charged with caring for them.
Children in foster care often come from impoverished homes. Children in poverty tend to be exposed to food with lower nutritional value, struggle academically, lack hope and optimism, and suffer insecurities and distress (Jensen, 2013). In short, poor children suffer a disproportionate share of deprivation, hardship, and bad outcomes (Lewit, Terman, & Behrman, 1997).
So imagine with me for a minute what life is like for typical children entering foster care. They were born into poverty or very close to it. Their parents might be some combination of absent, addicted, abusive, illiterate, and distressed. They may have experienced multiple traumatic events, which will likely affect their ability to trust others, their sense of personal safety, and their ability to manage emotions. Half of them, statistically speaking, will not finish high school, and of those that do graduate, only 6% will receive a college diploma (Kennedy, 2011). This is not the kind of life we would wish for anyone.
So what do we do? In yesterday’s Washington Post, Kevin Welner (2013) wondered if President Obama, in his State of the Union speech tomorrow evening, would recommend appropriate treatments to alleviate the repercussions of wealth inequality in the U.S. “[E]ducation researchers like me have been hollering from the rooftops,” he wrote, “hoping policymakers and others will understand that poverty is the biggest impediment to children’s academic success” (para. 1). He cited an October 2013 report from the Southern Education Foundation, which found that 48% of the nation’s 50 million public school students were in low-income families. Did you hear that? Almost half of our public school students in the U.S. are living near the poverty line.
Like Welner, I hope that President Obama has the wisdom and spends the political capital necessary to advocate for policies that will ameliorate the causes and effects of poverty. That is, in my opinion, part of his job. My job, however, is different. I have to look around me and decide what role I can play in the reduction of poverty, what I can do to improve the lives of others that are caught in cycles of neglect and abuse.
My wife and I decided four years ago to open our home to children in need of care. We have the arms to hold them, the lips to kiss them, the food to feed them, the beds in which they can rest peacefully, and the strength to defend them from harm. We do not have magic powers to heal them, but what we do have we give freely and in abundance.
I recognize that obliterating poverty is complex and will require action on numerous fronts over a long period of time. But I firmly believe that part of the work can be accomplished by fostering children who are the innocent victims.
United Way of Alamance County is uniquely qualified to discuss local data on poverty and all aspects of human service needs that directly relate to poverty. United Way of Alamance County is the primary partner involved in the Alamance County Community Needs Assessment to address issues such as transportation, domestic violence/sexual assault, adult/juvenile crime, elder/child abuse, education, financial stability, employment, homelessness, food insecurity, housing, etc. ….all issues that directly relate to poverty. Funding priorities for United Way and others are based on this report that is produced every 4 years in collaboration with ARMC, Alamance County Health Dept., Healthy Alamance and Elon University.United Way of Alamance County funds programs and services that currently exist for the poor in Alamance County including:
1. Medication assistance and healthcare for the indigent and uninsured
2. Assistance for seniors applying for Medicare Part D
3. Financial counseling, foreclosure prevention
4. Adult day programs for elderly and disabled (so caregivers can go to work)
5. Shelters for homeless, domestic violence victims and those with mental illness, substance abuse or alcohol dependencies
6. Financial assistance for after-school and summer programs for working parents
7. Self-sufficiency programs connecting people to job training, financial literacy and educational opportunities…to move people from being tax dollar consumers to tax payers
8. Legal assistance to prevent evictions, obtain expungements and benefits
9. Assistance for persons recovering from the financial and social challenges of felony conviction and incarceration
10. Disaster relief for those who experience loss of their home due to fire
11. Financial assistance for utilities, transportation, housing, returning to school and childcare
In addition to providing funding, we have several direct services serving the poor:
1. VITA – (Voluntary Income Tax Assistance) – provides volunteer tax preparation for low-income, disabled, veterans and elderly.
2. EFSP –Federal Emergency Food and Shelter Funds – providing rent assistance, food, prepared meals and shelter dollars to approved applicants.
3. Duke Energy Funds –for heating, cooling and electric for low-income customers and residents
4. NC 211.org and 2-1-1 a database of programs and services United Way of Alamance County manages for all Alamance County resources.
5. Community Guide to Assistance - A comprehensive brochure of phone numbers organized around critical need areas for consumers, providers, for-profit and non-profit organizations. The Guide is a compliment to NC2-1-1. Over 10,000 printed copies have been distributed in Alamance County. The Guide may also be found at http://www.uwalamance.org/find-help and is also available in large print.
6. Project Homeless Connect - The last Wednesday evening in January is designated by HUD (Housing and Urban Development – Federal Agency that provides low income housing funding) as time to get a Point in Time Count of the number of homeless people in our community. Federal and State agencies use this count to determine housing funding. It is more than just counting; however, there is a survey that has to be completed for each person counted. As you can imagine, this is a difficult task and we are sure we send in a smaller number than what the true number should be. In order to get a more accurate count, Project Homeless Connect has been set in place for Thursday, January 30 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Hope Church (former Brookwood Baptist on West Davis Street in Burlington).
When the community is in crisis and needs solutions…they look to United Way for the answers. Most recently, as soon as word spread of the closing of our community’s largest food pantry, local agencies, churches, businesses and interested community people looked to United Way to facilitate a response and a solution and we did…and continue to work on long-term solutions.
United Way is in the trenches when it comes to data analysis, support for needed services, initiating new solutions, collaborations among nonprofits and evaluating needs and progress.
At Iva Kaufman and Associates, we seek out and support innovative programs to address both environmental and economic distress, intimately related factors which feed back upon each other. Through a combination of services, we facilitate the creation of solutions to these twin concerns in some of the world's locations hardest hit with scarcity and all its ramifications.For example, in Mexico and Guatemala, we support a project which alleviates poverty by reaching out to economically disadvantaged women with the small loan financing they need to set up their own businesses. Administered by the Namaste Foundation, a micro-lending non-profit based in San Francisco, the project is called Namaste Direct and has successfully assisted many rural Mexican and Guatemalan women with not only the financial means to engage in enterprise, but also with ongoing small business advice.
A second project reaching directly into the areas most affected by deep poverty centers around the planting of hardy and productive trees in areas of the world deeply impacted by environmental degradation, which results from a host of factors.
|John Hood is President and Chairman of the John Locke Foundation, a North Carolina think tank that issues policy studies, hosts dozens of events and training sessions each year, produces broadcast programs, and publishes Carolina Journal, a newspaper, website, and radio program with a monthly audience of nearly 200,000 North Carolinians. Hood helped to found JLF in 1989.|
In addition to his duties at JLF, Hood is a syndicated columnist for the Winston-Salem Journal, High Point Enterprise, Gaston Gazette, Durham Herald-Sun, and newspapers in 50 other North Carolina communities. He also writes a monthly column, "Free & Clear," for Business North Carolina magazine.
|Tom Henricks is Danieley Professor of Sociology and Distinguished University Professor at Elon University. He is the author of several books and many articles on the organization of human experience, including Selves, Societies, and Emotions; Understanding the Pathways of Experience (2012) and Play and the Human Condition (forthcoming, 2014). At Elon, his teaching responsibilities include courses in social stratification and race and ethnic relations. Early in his career, he worked as a social worker in low-income communities in Chicago.|
|Rebecca Todd Peters is Professor of Religious Studies and Coordinator of the Poverty and Social Justice program at Elon University. In addition to teaching ethics courses in the Religious Studies department, she offers courses in the Poverty and Social Justice, Environmental Studies, Honors, and Women and Gender Studies programs.|
Her work as a feminist social ethicist is focused on globalization, economic, environmental, and reproductive justice. Her book, In Search of the Good Life: The Ethics of Globalization (Continuum, 2004), won the 2003 Trinity Book Prize. She has also co-edited four books including Justice in a Global Economy: Strategies for Home, Community and World (Westminster/John Knox, 2006) and To Do Justice: A Guide for Progressive Christians (Westminster/John Knox, 2008). She is the past President of the American Academy of Religion, Southeast Region and is Elon University’s 2011-12 Distinguished Scholar.
|Leandra ‘Nikki’ Ratliff, Program Services Director, Burlington Housing Authority/Burlington Development Corporation|
“Nikki” is a native of Burlington, NC. She received a B.A. in Political Science from UNC-Greensboro. She has worked in the Human Services field since before her graduation. Nikki is currently employed at Burlington Housing Authority/Burlington Development Corporation as the Program Services Director. Her work at the housing authority involves supportive housing programs for the homeless and partnering with residents to gain self-sufficiency and greater self-determination. Her previous work experience includes Elon Homes for Children and the Guilford County Department of Social Services. Nikki is actively involved in her community. She is a member of the Burlington Junior Woman’s Club and serves as the General Federation of Women’s Clubs of North Carolina District 4 Junior Director. Nikki also serves as a member of the Family Support Committee of Habitat for Humanity of Alamance County, a member of ARMC’s Charitable Foundation Board of Directors, an Advisory Board member of The Exchange Club’s Family Center of Alamance, an Alamance County Guardian ad Litem, President of United Way of Alamance County’s Community Council, a member of the Board of Directors of United Way of Alamance County, and a member of the Pi Omicron Omega chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated. She was honored as one of the Triad’s Forty Leaders under 40 in 2011.