New faces among Henrico’s poor
The faces of poverty are no longer stranger's faces, or the faces of city residents, or people of color.
They are your neighbors, Henrico.
That was the gist of a presentation at an "Eyes on Richmond" forum in October, at which Dr. John Moeser noted that Henrico County leads the region in an unenviable statistic: the rate of increase of residents living in poverty.
While the City of Richmond's poverty level rose five percent in the decade from 2000 to 2010, Henrico's increased by 94 percent, Chesterfield's by 71 percent, and Hanover's by 39 percent.
The old assumptions about low-income families concentrating in inner cities is no longer a reality in today's economy, said Moeser, noting that a recent American Community Survey found more people living in poverty who reside in the suburbs than in the city.
What's more, as underscored by Henrico's 94 percent increase, the growth in poverty rates is much greater in the counties.
Among the more startling visuals that Moeser displayed at his presentation (recently repeated at a Shepherd Center "lunch-and-learn" at St. Mary's Catholic Church) was a regional map showing census tracts with high concentrations of poverty. There, directly adjacent to the Henrico County Western Government Center, was a dark blotch representing one of the region's "top" three areas for families living below the poverty line.
"I'm convinced," Moeser said grimly, "that a lot of people working for Henrico County are unaware they're working in a high density poverty [zone]."
Another statistic cited by Moeser, a professor at the University of Richmond Bonner Center for Civic Engagement, is that almost five percent of Henrico County households have no car. In a region that ranks, as Richmond does, 92nd of 100 cities in transportation access to jobs, lack of a car is an almost insurmountable challenge when it comes to finding work.
Moeser's statistics and sad stories are backed up by the staff at local non-profits and government agencies, who have seen significant increases in the numbers of families and individuals seeking financial help and food.
Teddy Martin, the outgoing president of LAMB's Basket, announced recently that the food pantry saw a total of 1,074 new applicants in 2011.
Even though food donations to the pantry (from businesses that include Fin and Feather, Whole Foods, Bakers Crust, BJ's, Costco, Food Lion, Panera's, Martin's, and Trader Joe's in addition to churches, organizations and the Central Virginia Food Bank) have risen substantially – amounting to a total of 566,918 pounds last year – needs have also increased dramatically. In one year, from 2010 to 2011, the number of persons served by the organization (31,061) jumped 45 percent, while the number of households increased 66 percent.
Established in 2002, LAMB's Basket (LAMB is an acronym for Lakeside Area Ministries Board) is staffed entirely by volunteers. Before the organization was created, Lakeside-area churches all had smaller food pantries of their own, but when one church began receiving referrals from Henrico County Social Services and could no longer keep up with
demand, members of the various churches combined efforts. Pantry patrons, who must have referrals, are welcome at LAMB's Basket twice a month for the first six months, and then need to reapply.
Nancy Yeary, a LAMB's Basket board member and frequent volunteer, sees daily evidence of the demand for food. "The other day," said Yeary at the January annual meeting, "we had 400 pounds of romaine lettuce. We gave it away in three days."
The Henrico Christmas Mother Council, one of the organizations that contributes to the LAMB's Basket pantry, can trace the same decade-long trend in applicants that Moeser documented in his research. Since 2000, said council president Shelly Poole, the number of individuals receiving assistance from Henrico Christmas Mother has increased 70 percent.
"In 2011," said Poole, "we served a record 6,069 individuals – up from 5,943 in 2010." The largest single-year increase occurred from 2008 to 2009, when applications rose more than 20 percent and the number of children served jumped 25 percent.
The Christmas Mothers – who provide new clothes, toys, books and food to qualifying Henrico families, the elderly and adults with disabilities during the holiday season – work hand in hand with Henrico's Department of Social Services (DSS) to stay abreast of the growing need. At a meeting Poole attended in September, she recalled that Rod Gordon of DSS shared statistics illustrating a 15 percent increase in first-time clients filing for services and noted that
between 12 and 14 percent of county residents are on some type of assistance.
A house of cars
Jan Parrish and Deb Reed of Henrico County Public Schools are all too familiar with the struggles of Henrico's poor; they see the numbers and hear the stories daily.
"This year I am working with three families living in their cars," said Parrish, the school social worker supervisor for HCPS. "That's been going on since August." Usually, it is families with adolescent male children that are caught in such a bind, because boys of that age are not typically allowed in shelters.
Reed, an educational specialist in the HCPS office of records management, pointed out that even if families are eligible for a shelter, the waiting list can be weeks long.
"If you're living in a car today, you have to call every day for five to seven weeks [or lose your place on the waiting list]," said Reed. "We don't have nearly the shelters we need, and we don't have any shelters that accept intact families [with both parents] or teenage boys.
"What are these people supposed to do?" asked Reed.
For the "lucky" homeless families who get to live in a shelter or motel, or to double up with relatives, the logistics are still difficult.
Reed knows of one family in which the grandparents have taken in their two grown daughters and several grandchildren and are getting by on the grandparents' Social Security. "They live in a tiny two-bedroom cottage," said Reed, "[probably] sleeping multiples to a bed."
If children were in a Henrico County school, and their shelter, motel or alternative housing is in another locality, Henrico has to arrange transportation, whether from Chesterfield, City of Richmond, or in one case, New Kent County.
While Henrico officials have reciprocal agreements with other jurisdictions in such cases, the distance between localities can make for long bus rides – and children who miss the bus from a motel have been known to stay at the hotel unsupervised all day.
The principle behind the transportation rule is that uprooted children can experience at least some measure of stability through school, said Parrish. "That school becomes the stabilizing force in their lives; they don't have to move every time Mom or Dad moves," she said.
Even so, many of the children require counseling to deal with the shame of being homeless.
"They are devastated they are in those situations," said Parrish. "They are afraid for their peers to know that they're going home to a hotel at the end of the day."
Getting homeless children to school each day, said Parrish, is a relief for school personnel because they know not only that the children are safe, but also that they are getting fed.
More than a third of HCPS students – 34 percent – are eligible for free and reduced lunch.
"But I worry about them on holiday breaks and long weekends," said Parrish, who said she often schedules meetings with families on Saturdays so that she can check on them.
According to Reed, there were 882 homeless students in the Henrico system last year. The number has gone up progressively each year for at least six years, and Reed expects 2012 to be no different. Although most homeless students are identified in the first week of school, the numbers continue to climb throughout the winter and spring months. In mid-January, said Reed, she received a list of 24 new names of students needing help.
"And the first semester is not even over," she said.
Visible and not-so
Both Parrish and Reed expressed dismay not only at what they call "astronomical" numbers of homeless and low-income families, but also at the stereotypes and misperceptions that hold sway with some members of the public regarding those families.
"I don't think there really is a collective understanding of this situation," said Parrish. "There are many layers [to the story] of how families become poor.
"This is not something that is occurring because . . . people didn't work," she continued. "I have families in hotels and the parents are working two jobs, but even with two incomes they're not making enough to afford a house, or their credit has gotten bad. They're finding themselves in a place they never anticipated they would be."
Parrish said she also wants to dispel the perception that "it's those people; that won't happen to me. It can indeed happen to all of us. You only need to miss two paychecks and you can find yourself in that situation."
The number of single parents on assistance and lacking homes has skyrocketed in particular, due to job loss and domestic violence. "They have no recourse," said Parrish of the single parents.”
Reed added that another stereotype of low-income and homeless people is that they are mentally ill or drug abusers, "like the people you see panhandling at the corner of Broad and Boulevard. Those [more visible] people are the really destitute; they're not representative of the people we have living in hotels for three or four years.”
In one case, for example, a woman who called Reed had gotten an eviction notice even though she was paying rent – because the owner of the house was not making the mortgage payments. Another series of cases resulted when students arrived from faraway places to move in with relatives following natural disasters. "After [Hurricane] Katrina," said Reed, "we had 65 kids here from New Orleans."
When training teachers, Reed said that she always points out that the job market is extremely difficult now, even for people with education and skills. "The only difference between you and that [homeless] family," Reed tells the teachers, "is that right now you have a paycheck.
"Most of us are on the edge," she reminds them. "We are one lost job or sudden health crisis away from financial [ruin]. For single parents raising a family, a health crisis or the loss of a job can send you into a spiral – and it's hard to dig your way out."
Teddy Martin can vouch for Reed's and Parish's observation that the face of poverty is changing, and that many of today's poor slipped into the ranks of the low-income from comfortable middle class lifestyles.
"One of the clients at the pantry lives in a household composed of two adults, one child and one senior," said Martin.
"I knew [the client] when she was a teenager and . . . she and my son swam for the Lakeside Swim and Racquet Club."
While volunteers and social workers who deal with the poor can tell many stories of hardship and heartache, they also tell stories of hope.
Nancy Yeary recalled a shift at the pantry one day when she was wrapping donated bread with a team of volunteers that included a woman and her husband. The woman confided in Yeary that her husband had lost his job, and that they were dreading having to sell their house and move in with a son. But it was their only hope of surviving financially.
"I picked the biggest loaf of bread I could find," said Yeary, "and wrapped it and gave it to to them. “ Although the husband has since found a job, said Yeary, the image from that day that has stuck with her is the way the woman excitedly called her husband over when she received the bread.
"They looked down on it," said Yeary, "like it was a new baby."
Parrish recalled a student who was homeless through four years of high school, after growing up with a single mother in and out of treatment and jail due to drug addiction. The boy coped, said Parrish, by going home with "whatever friend he connected with that day," then moving on every day or so. Not only did he graduate and find the career he wanted in the military, said Parrish, but he still keeps in touch with occasional post cards.
Shelly Poole told the story of a Christmas Mother client who was adopted in 2009 by a group of employees at a large local company. One of the employees, Jennifer, wrote a letter to the Christmas Mother describing their first encounter with Robertha, who had cancer and was finding it hard to decide between buying medicines and food.
When asked what she wanted for Christmas, said Jennifer, Robertha's initial answer was, "I could use some toilet paper."
But eventually the adoptive group coaxed a list of sizes and favorite foods from Robertha and began providing food, clothing and checks to her twice a year.
Robertha always sent gracious thank-you notes to her "angels," as she called the employees; but when the group gave her a check for Christmas 2010, she was particularly moved.
"As the tears rolled down her eyes," wrote Jennifer, "she told us she could purchase the eyeglasses she so desperately needed but could not afford." When some of the group visited Robertha the next Easter, she showed off her new glasses and exulted that she could not only see, but even sew a little. She also told the group that she was
able to "pay it forward" for the Christmas Dinner they had brought her, sharing it with a building neighbor who would have missed her holiday meal because Meals on Wheels could not deliver through the snow.
"[Robertha] has become an important member of our office family and we all truly care about her," Jennifer wrote to the Christmas Mother. "Small acts of kindness can make a difference in someone's life. I encourage anyone that reads this to consider getting a group together and answer someone in need."
As for Robertha, she wrote another eloquent thank-you note.
"Love and unselfishness have a way of being infectious and it certainly has infected my soul. You angels . . . rescued me. I can now say that my head is above water and it's because of you. If you are planning to do Christmas Mother for me again this year, it is my unselfish wish to pass this blessing on to another family or another senior citizen that may be sinking as deep as I was back in 2009.
"You are not finished with me," concluded Robertha. "I plan to keep in touch with you as long as I am able to, because you mean so much to me."
Closing the gap
Most of those who work with low-income families agree with Moeser that one of the formidable barriers to poor people trying to rise above their circumstances is the appalling lack of access to transportation. Another barrier is the lack of safe, stable, low-cost housing.
"We have virtually no public transportation in Henrico County, or affordable housing," said Reed, "and those conditions contribute to our struggles with serving [homeless] children."
Until such major shortcomings in housing and transportation are resolved, said Parrish, the current push to close the achievement gap will fall short.
"How do we get there when there is such an inequity in resources for these families?" asked Parrish. "You're never going to close on an achievement gap if [students] can't get to school . . . or if they are hungry and worrying about where they are going at the end of the day."
It's essential, Reed added, that county residents with homes, cars, jobs and savings accounts realize that their neighbors may not be so insulated – and to remember that savings can disappear in a heartbeat.
"Don't think because you have a cushy life now," said Reed, "that next month something couldn't happen and you'd be unable to pay your bills."
Most of the low-income individuals she works with, Parrish emphasized, want to provide for their families on their own. "They never expected to need assistance," said Parrish, "and they have to hit rock bottom [to accept it.] They're just good decent people who got caught up in a situation and started a downward spiral.
"People are in this not by choices that they made, but the situations that happened to them," she said.
"And they need support."
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