Fixing entrenched poverty
Homelessness, insists Dean, could be fixed not simply within his lifetime, but before he retires. Really, it only dates back the last 30-35 years. Before the late 70s, there really wasnt much homelessness in this country. Then in the 80s, we saw this explosion and we saw this whole system created to deal with it. Before that, you have to go back to the Dust Bowl days of the Great Depression to see anything near the relative numbers of homeless people that were experiencing today.
He says homelessness is not a natural phenomenon, but rather came about largely through the crack cocaine explosion that festered in lower-income neighborhoods and through Reagan-era housing policies that decimated affordable housing. If its something we created, he says, obviously there are ways to solve it.
Darren Ash of Charlotte Family Housing says the key to fixing entrenched poverty requires that the dignity of the person in poverty be respected. He has little patience with those on the extreme left who believe the government should do everything for you except tuck you in at night and those on the extreme right who think poverty is best handled by leaving the poor to the tender mercies of the all-knowing free market.
He prefers to steer a middle path. He describes it as teaching a person to fish but also making sure the pond is stocked. We believe youre a strong person, we believe youre not a charity case. Because of that strong belief, we are not going to do for you what youre capable of doing for yourself. But stock the pond, he says, first with shelters so that the homeless can be rescued from the immediate crisis of living in the streets. We have to build a platform from there for you to move back into housing, to be advocated for, for there to be a short-term rental subsidy, for there to be interest-free micro loans, for there to be interest-free car purchase plans, for us to combat some of the predatory lending practices that happen to the underclass.
Getting people housed
Dale Mullennix, executive director of the Urban Ministry Center, says he would love to hear the president, in accepting his partys nomination, declare that housing is a human right for everybody.
This is the focus of the work the center does. Housings the answer to homelessness, he says, not shelter, not emergency services. Theres a role for some emergency services, but what we see that changes lives is getting people housed. If you focus on helping people get housed he says, instead of just sheltered, and then provide those people with support services, we see their health improve, we see their behavior improve and we see their cost to the community go way down.
Justin Markel, a former appraiser disabled by a muscular illness and by Parkinsons, lives in an Urban Ministry Center apartment. It is a spartan space, reminiscent of your average dorm room. But Markel takes an obvious pride in his home. Like George Farmer, he understands that having a place of your own is something you do not take for granted.
When youre in a shelter, he says, there is no independence. Youre on their timetable, you eat when they say eat, you eat what they feed you, youve got to be back at a certain time to check in, youve got to leave at a certain time in the morning. Everything is really governed for you. Im used to handling my own schedule and doing my own thing and eating my own food and cooking my own things. That all disappears. It really was a different situation for me.
His neighbor, Carlotta Mauney, agrees. You feel like youre nobody, she adds, because you cant even have the basic things that normal people have.
But now, says Mauney, a recovering addict, her life has been changed by Urban Ministry and a small piece of metal. I love the fact that Ive got a key to my own place, she says. Its home. And its mine. I dont have to depend on somebody else for a handout. Thats a positive step in the right direction for me. Some people might not think its a big step, but I do, cause I know where Ive been.
These are the stories that will not be told this week when the Democrats gather. These are the people who will not be talked about or seen.
Ash is not surprised. You dont target the invisible people in your country, he says. Theyre truly invisible. I mean, Ive watched upper middle-class people go to restaurants and they look at whos waiting on them almost like theyre invisible. Theyre looking through them.
You do not hear advocates say government should fix poverty. But they do feel government should play a more energetic role in partnership with private entities and the faith community in helping those the Bible calls the least of these. They do say this silence is unconscionable.
Walk in their shoes
Carol Hardison, the CEO of Crisis Assistance Ministry, runs a poverty simulation that, she says, stuns and awakens people who take it, blowing away their notions of what it means to be poor. She has this fantasy of a TV show like Undercover Boss where political leaders, before voting on some issue that impacts the less fortunate, would have to spend some time in undercover poverty, to walk in their shoes for one week.
I seriously wonder how I could do it, she says. I dont think I could. A lot of times, people will suggest that maybe its also a money management problem. Theyll quickly say to you, Teach them money management. Ill say, Ive never seen a person make a dollar go so far. I have never seen a person get so much food walk in with $10 and come out of the grocery with $5 left.
It is, she says, immoral that we no longer speak of things like this on the national level. And it is.
Forty-six million Americans live in poverty. And while there are some who are there because they made and make self-destructive choices, some who are there because of addiction to drugs or alcohol or because they are mentally ill, most of those who are there are not terribly different from anyone else, not terribly different from the delegates who will throng the Democratic convention this week. Granted, it is comforting to believe otherwise, comforting to believe the line separating them from you is Hulk-strong and neon bright, that their situation reflects some failing moral, spiritual, intellectual that you, righteous soul, do not suffer. Comforting. But then, self-delusion often is.
Life happened to them, same as it happens to anyone. And they deserve what anyone would want. Not a handout nor even just help, but first, an acknowledgement that they are there.
See me. Speak my name. Make me real.
Not that George Farmer is holding his breath. The Democratic Convention, he says, will surely be good for some people, but it is meaningless to him and to those like him who are still stuck at a certain place.
So he just wishes he could get away from the whole thing. It basically reaches out and speaks to numbers that I am not a part of.