April 14, 2019
This week I saw the face of poverty in Winston-Salem and the cliché is true: it ain’t pretty. For years I have been writing about the pleasures of living in a city that is still going through the most grim challenge any city can face, one that turned thousands of lives upside down and inside out and left thousands more to pick up the pieces and put them back together. And out of the crisis has emerged a city with a robust economy and a bright future, but with too many left behind, victims of a changing economy that demands a different set of job skills. As said with a touch of humor by one of the thirty or so participants in the sixth “listening session” sponsored by the new Partnership for Prosperity, “I’ve been poor so long I think of it as my lifestyle.”
For the most part, however, humor was in short supply. There was a sense of desperation that moved one participant to tears, there was an odd muted anger in some and resignation in others. Those that were present to represent those organizations trying to ameliorate the effects of poverty offered suggestions on where to find help. Job training programs in Greensboro and at Goodwill here were mentioned and their success rate is impressive. But some of the participants were disabled and couldn’t work and others simply didn’t know the programs existed.
One participant was there on behalf of her husband, who feels stigmatized by being poor. He came from a family that looked down on those who need help. Everyone in the room was familiar with the stigma of poverty and quick to insist that it must be eradicated. But some doubted that, in America, it could be. At a previous listening session, the observation was made that if you give a man a fish he can eat for a day, but it you teach him to fish, he can eat forever. But what if he can’t afford a fishing pole or the cost of transportation to get to the fishing pond? Sometimes people need help just to get through the day.
“There’s no reason the richest nation in the world can’t help people who need some help,” said one. “There’s plenty of money,” said another.
One participant, new to poverty, wasn’t convinced everyone wanted to help. “They treat you like dogs and talk to you like you’re crap,” she said. “People don’t understand,” agreed another.
“People who need help should tell more truth stories, so everyone can understand,” suggested John Railey, the Director of Partnership for Prosperity, host of the meeting at the Crisis Control Ministry and a strong advocate for raising awareness of the issues surrounding poverty so there is a community-wide acceptance that poverty in our city affects us all.
“It’s pretty easy to spot the people gaming the system,” said another participant, picking up on the implication that taxpayers have become disillusioned with anti-poverty programs that don’t seem to solve the problem. “But those stories are hard to tell.”
One young man, temporarily down on his luck, told of getting into public housing but not being able to afford furniture. Those representing the many programs in the city that combat poverty told him of ways he might be able to “work off” the cost of used furniture. His story and the response reflected a common thread woven by this listening session and the five that preceded it.
“People in need don’t know where to go for help,” is that thread that ties the sessions together. “And they don’t have the resources to find out.” The suggestion that a lot of information is available on the Internet was met with silence until someone pointed out that the suggestion assumed people could afford a computer.
In response, one participant held up her smart phone, saying “This is my Obamaphone,” she said, referring to a program that made smart phones available to those qualified free of charge, with a limit on the number of minutes available. For her, it was not just a device. It was a lifeline.
The sale of Crystal Towers was referred to as a loss of affordable housing, but one participant pointed out that the sale was conditional on everyone presently living at Crystal Towers be housed elsewhere before the sale was consummated. The intention is humane. The reality is less accommodating.
“Where are they going?” asked another. Affordable housing is scare in Winston-Salem. City officials are acutely aware of that and a bond issue approved by the voters last year provides $10 million for assistance in building affordable housing. That takes time. In the meantime, residents of Crystal Towers wait for housing to become available, with their vouchers for moving assistance in hand. And as Mayor Joines said at one of the listening sessions, the city will need 15,000 or more affordable housing units over the next eight years despite a city ordinance that requires all new rental developments set aside 20 percent of their units for those who qualify for financial assistance.
The scarcity of affordable housing has given rise to landlords willing to rent one room in a single family house they own for about $400-$500 a month. That amount is generally considered to be about what an affordable rent is. Railey says the perception of some folks is that an affordable rent is about a $1,000 a month, which is “lunacy” and is about the monthly rent of the smallest apartments in the new development just completed down the block from where Carole and I live.
Among the more poignant complaints heard is that those with modest incomes have been displaced from downtown, which once was home to many. “We’re not part of the city anymore,” said one, meaning the revitalized downtown area. And yet downtown is a jewel in the crown of our resurgent city and likely essential to a quality of life for those “who can afford a million dollar apartment.”
This “listening session” was somewhat different from the others. Not many potential solutions to poverty emerged from the discussion. But it was needed. The listening sessions were intended to do exactly what happened at this meeting in the Crisis Control Ministry building. Those in need had a chance to “tell their truth” stories. Anyone who attended that meeting could not have but felt the needs were genuine and the resources to help limited. On a personal note, I am convinced that Winston-Salem is a compassionate city, well-led by its elected officials, and served by hundreds of not-for-profit organizations with thousands of volunteers doing their best to make a difference.
But I am also convinced there is a need for better coordination, collaboration, and communication. The best thing of all is that no one I’ve talked to over the last five months has disagreed.
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