Moving Beyond Poverty: Helping Individuals and Families Advance
BY ANNE MARSHAL / PHOTOGRAPHY BY WILLIAM DESHAZER
On a blustery day in front of Rangeland Elementary in Newburg, branches quiver at the touch of a cool breeze, loosening rusty-colored leaves. A mother walks with her 9-year-old son. Before they part at the school doors, he says, “Mom, I miss our old house. We have lots of good memories there.”
The mother, Amie (who asks that her last name be withheld for privacy), wills her brown eyes to push back tears. She doesn’t want to upset him. She’s trying so desperately to keep life clicking along for her son, the baby, the youngest of her four boys.
She’s tells her son that crashing at a friend’s house is like “an extra-long sleepover.” She still makes sure he is at the kitchen table doing homework after school. And on Tuesdays, they watch their favorite television show, “The Flash.”
But, honestly, nothing is normal. Amie, a 41-year-old who recently acquired an associate’s degree in health administration, is homeless. Her housing troubles started with a “slum lord,” she says. He refused to address mold and other issues. There were legal battles that kept her busy with court appearances. Those court proceedings had her missing a lot of work, and as a result, she was fired from her job as the office manager in a doctor’s office.
She’s had trouble finding a landlord who will take her Section 8 voucher. Her income is so low — just over $750 per month in disability — they don’t feel she’s a reliable tenant. On top of all this, after losing her job, she had to reapply for food stamps, a process that’s taken over a month.
In theory, there is a network of nonprofits and churches in Louisville to support her. But without a car, Amie can’t just run to a food pantry. She called one nearby church that told her that they were out of funding and to call back on the first of the month. Others have just referred her elsewhere when they hear she’s in Newburg because it’s outside their service area. “People don’t realize how resources are limited,” says Amie. “I don’t understand why people can’t cross lines.” It’s like she’s on the radar of those who can help, but she’s drifting along with no clear path ahead.
Amie’s situation is not unique. One out of five children in Louisville live in poverty, roughly 38,000. In its latest Competitive City report, the Greater Louisville Project (GLP)— a project for which the Community Foundation of Louisville is a co-founder and sustaining funder — explores the many barriers poor families face, including health problems, a lack of readiness for kindergarten and employment that doesn’t pay well enough to accrue savings. Bringing those 38,000 kids out of poverty would lead to an additional $9,300 per person in annual income when they become adults. On a broader scale, lifting those children closer to the middle class would unleash $200 million in economic activity
“The moment of urgency is that we are realizing we are paying a lot in health care and crime and we are losing a lot in economic opportunity,” says Ben Reno-Weber, project director at GLP. “It’s not that we need new resources; it’s that we need to better connect the ones we have.”
School Resource Centers Fill Some Gaps
In the course of hopping from place to place, Amie’s lost many of her belongings, including clothing. Without the money to buy her son a winter coat, she turned to Rangeland Elementary. It’s one of 130 Jefferson County Public Schools with a Family Resource and Youth Service Center (FRYSC). Since 1990, these centers have worked to eliminate barriers to learning.
“If a child can’t eat, they’re not going to function well in school,” says Milessa Barnes, coordinator of Rangeland’s FRYSC.
Rangeland has a 96 percent free and reduced lunch rate. Barnes loads backpacks with food for Amie and other families every Friday, gently placing them next to students’ desks before school lets out. Without that, some kids might go without food over the weekend. The center also provides clothing, free counseling and therapy, and dental, hearing and vision care.
Removing those needs can, hopefully, allow students to focus on learning. For many children in poverty, educational struggles persist. While 43 percent of children on free and reduced lunch are kindergarten ready, 71 percent of their wealthier peers come into kindergarten with the essential skills. Eighteen percent of children in poverty don’t have anyone at home who has completed high school. In Louisville, the gap between college and career readiness levels of students who are on free and reduced lunches and those who are not is 25 percentage points.
Barnes says she always tries to assess the whole family, taking a “wrap-around service” sort of approach. Lately she’s seen a lot of homelessness — families shuffling from hotels to friends’ couches. Many parents may be working, but due to an eviction, addiction or health crisis, they find themselves slipping backward — falling behind on bills, relying on overpriced corner stores for a meal and toiletries because they lack a car to get to a decent grocery store. Stress and worry mount quickly. “Sometimes I feel like I’m failing as a mother,” Amie says through tears one morning after she drops off her son at school.
Health and Legal Issues May Go Hand in Hand
Doctors & Lawyers for Kids is another nonprofit working to halt the spiral. Located in all the University of Louisville pediatric clinics as well as a few Family Health Centers, the model involves training health professionals to spot issues that affect the health of their patients, issues that a lawyer posted right down the hall can jump on for free. Eviction is a big one. So are custody cases. Martha Hasselbacher, founding director and volunteer president of the organization, says the opioid epidemic has increased the number of grandparents caring for children. “If they don’t have some kind of legal guardianship, they can’t get a Medicaid card or change their school,” Hasselbacher explains.
In one instance, Doctors & Lawyers for Kids was able to help a Louisville family with a severely ill 5-year-old girl. Her father had lost his job due to criminal activity. He was under home incarceration and was not following doctor’s recommendations for his daughter. The mother assumed care for the girl’s complex medical issues and subsequently lost her job. The family was about to be evicted. The agency worked to get the mother sole legal custody and kept her in her home.
Hasselbacher wishes the organization could operate in many more clinics, “but we have limited resources,” she says.
Many organizations echo that sentiment. They can’t do everything for everybody. It’s why the Metro United Way is actively researching ways to ensure that when a person presents needs at one location, a web of support surfaces across the community. In Louisville, 72 percent of children growing up in poverty live in households where at least one person is employed but does not earn enough to take steps out of poverty. Instead, life is more about survival.
Casting a Safety Net for Single Parents
“You all know tutoring is at four, right?” Yashawa Walker says as she walks into her 3-bedroom apartment at the Family Scholar House. “Yes, ma’am,” one of her teenage sons replies.
Walker, a tall, energetic 36-year-old mother of three boys, arrived at the Family Scholar House two years ago. After she split with the father of her sons, they stayed with him. She became homeless. Originally from Louisiana, she had no family to live with. As a student at University of Louisville studying to become a psychiatric nurse, she had no job, no income. There were nights in her car and in hotel rooms. “It was hard but at the same time, to me, it was motivation to keep going,” she says.
The Family Scholar House works to empower families by providing housing, childcare and whatever else single parents need to complete a college degree. Since 2008, Family Scholar House participants have earned 371 degrees.
Walker covers her apartment with motivational quotes on Post-It notes — “Be productive every day, even when it’s the hardest thing to do” is the message on her full-length mirror. Positive attitude helps, but without support, lifting herself out of poverty would have been nearly impossible. After her split, she thought she’d have to give up on her college goals and go back to retail work, a job that was limiting — financially and mentally. Could she afford a decent place in a safe neighborhood? Maybe.
At Family Scholar House, she has a gated complex that’s safe for her boys while she works overnight as a nursing aide. Her boys have tutoring on site, and she has people there that she trusts. She knows if she needs to cry or vent, there’s an office with a door that closes and a friendly shoulder to lean on.
Cathe Dykstra, the “chief possibility officer” at Family Scholar House, is proud of how much her organization has expanded. Now with five sites, it has assisted more than 3,000 families. Still, Dykstra knows the community could benefit from broader safety nets. She has a wait list of nearly 850 people she can’t help.
Dykstra doesn’t have a social work background. She’s an economics major. Human dignity aside, for her, elevating families couldn’t make more logical sense. “If you look at what we normally do for families who can’t make it, we normally give them enough to get through today and that’s important,” she says. “But when we are able to get them to be contributing members of the community we’re all better off. The savings is about $69,000 per year (in state and federal dollars) for a mother with two kids who graduates and becomes self-sufficient. We should all want that.”
As shown by the Greater Louisville Project’s data, there’s a strong moral case as well as a clear economic case to reduce poverty in our community. May we continue to join together, align resources and increase collaboration to shift the daily realities of poverty that affect many of our neighbors.
To learn more visit: greaterlouisvilleproject.org, familyscholarhouse.org, doctorsandlawyersforkids.org and lul.org
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