Poverty is ugly. It doesn't matter how you describe it. It doesn't matter where you sit to observe it or live in it. Whether it is Jamaica, Belize, Africa, Europe, anytown USA, Detroit, or right here in Washtenaw County.
For the last two days, I've been participating in/chairing meetings as Directors Council President of the Michigan Community Action Agencies Association. We've spent a whole lot of our time trying to get our hands around how we are going to solve the problem of poverty in Michigan. Right now nearly 33% of our State's families and children live in poverty. Is this PURE MICHIGAN? The Governor is planning a huge Voices for Action Poverty Reduction Summit on November 13th at Cobo Hall. I am coordinating the effort with Livingston and Oakland County. (We will have more info on our website soon for you to sign up to go and learn about this crisis in our State.)
In Washtenaw County, almost 12% (~30,000 individuals) of our population live at or below of the poverty level. If we walk through certain neighborhoods in our county we don't see the blight or "slums" that we might see in other areas of the state, but we know that beyond the walls, people are suffering. We know that people are a house note away from foreclosure, a rent payment away from homelessness, a utility payment away from shutoffs. An ill senior citizen is in our county somewhere not knowing how they are going to pay for their next bottle of pills to stay healthy.
Eleanor Josaitis, Co-Founder, Focus-Hope, and a dear colleague of mine, told my group yesterday that she ran into a 4-star general who found out his mother had only popsicles in her refrigerator to eat. And he called her regularly. He had no idea she was hungry. Sometimes, many hide their poverty. They are too proud, and ashamed.
Let me put it another way. My vision of how many people are living in poverty in Washtenaw County, the second most affluent county in Michigan, is this: Think of the Big House. We could fill the Big House from the End Zone to the 33 Yard Zone with those who need assistance from our County's Human Services Departments and community based and faith based organizations.
Imagine that! That's a lot of people. And that is just the children and adults we count and know of.
So where does Katrina fit in on all this? I recently toured the aftermath of Katrina. I saw firsthand the miles and miles of lost New Orleans neighborhoods and too much poverty afforded to one city. It reminded too much of the aftermath of the riots of '67 in Detroit. Neighborhoods that weren't up to speed BEFORE the devastation looked beyond repair afterwards. So, indeed, poverty was accelerated after Katrina hit.
Then I was reminded again that 900 people lost their lives, that 6000 business owners lost their business, and that thousands of people waited out on the I-90 Bridge with one bottled water and 2 sandwiches in 101 degree scorching heat from Tuesday – Friday waiting for RESCUE. And it hurt through my tears.
So, where does Katrina fit in with Washtenaw? As a government worker and humble servant I ask myself where did the government go wrong with Katrina? Why did government go wrong with Katrina? How did government go wrong with Katrina?
As we work together in Washtenaw County every day to serve the most in need we should ask ourselves are we doing things correctly? Are we operating programs in the best interest of those needing services? Are we serving those in need with the utmost dignity and respect? As I walk around viewing our impoverished neighborhoods in Washtenaw County, where children play, I wonder why we cannot redevelop certain housing projects any quicker than a Katrina redevelopment project and move these individuals out of poverty.
I know it's not that easy. We all have a lot of work to do. I am convinced that people are not poor because they want to be.
Tell me what you think?
ACCESS POINTS: the community helping the community
It might be a little secret to some in Washtenaw County, but we’re famous across the country!
I am one of the founding "sisters", (or at this stage of my life, I should say founding "mamas",- it’s been 25 years) of the National Workforce Development Council of the United States Conference of Mayors- the council of professionals who advise the Mayors of this Country on issues impacting job seekers and employers in their communities. At their annual meeting with the Mayors in Miami, not too many days ago, Senator Obama graced us with his presence at a special VIP luncheon. Even though I thought I was VIP enough, the ONLY reason I got in to the luncheon with OBAMA, was because my daughter, Captain Terica Rusher -- 275th Military Police, National Guard Headquarters, Washington DC, who is on leave from a just very recent tour from Iraq, and had flown down to Miami to be with me during these working meetings-- had charmed several mayors with her war stories and gained a luncheon seat. Mom got to tag along…. Ha!… So it worked out for me.
The rest of my colleagues ate in the overflow room.
So, there I was sitting front and center listening to Senator Obama, who could possibly be the next President of our United States of America, and one of the first sentences out of his mouth put all of us in government on notice (and helped me start my intended blog)…. He appeared to look each and every one of us directly in the eye and pointed his hand and said vehemently…"GOVERNMENT must be the SOLUTION to the NEEDS of communities, and NOT THE PROBLEM".
Those words resonated within my head for the rest of our meetings in Miami, and all of the colleagues and elected officials I ran into were into the buzz. We must be the solution.
Well, I am so proud to let our community know, that in a HUGE WAY, Washtenaw County and ETCS has implemented ACCESS POINTS, as a solution; as a way of doing more with less, as a way of letting the community help itself, by reaching out to many who we would never have reached out to in traditional ways, and therefore making a difference in the way government does business.
So what are ACCESS POINTS? They are volunteer sites in the community where Faith-based and community-based organization get trained by ETCS staff.
These sites are extensions of the Michigan Works Services Center and help job seekers access job leads and services that they would ordinarily learn about by physically travelling to our Center (located at Hamilton and Harriet Streets in Ypsilanti).
Now, instead of spending gas to access the service and sit face to face with a real person, they can go to their area church or to a place of worship or community organization in their own neighborhood. And what’s more- Access Points don’t hold traditional 8:30am – 5:00pm office hours. Some are open on Saturdays and Sundays – some as early as 9am and others as late as 8pm.
How about that for access?
The other good news about these Access Points is that there are 29 of them all over the County. (Each of the nation's 629 designated work areas were required to have two (2)... which is why WASHTENAW COUNTY IS FAMOUS!)
Our ACCESS POINTS are at all of our Libraries. The Ypsilanti Public Library leads the pack. USDOL (United States Department Of Labor) came and visited their site and was AWESTRUCK!
You will see the signage throughout the County in Milan, Manchester, Chelsea, Ypsilanti, and Ann Arbor. You will see signs at area churches and places of Churches, SOS, Catholic Churches Services, Jewish Family Services, and Mt. Olive Baptist Church.
In addition to job seeker services, there is counseling, self-taught literacy software, job fairs, field trips, career exploration, job development (one site developed 100 jobs from Toyota), outreach and referral, and much more.
And there are other remarkable things about this initiative… I didn’t hire one person to make this happen!
My staff readjusted their workload to make it happen. They are a truly committed team. We didn’t buy one single new computer. Washtenaw County IT department donated computers from their "technology graveyard". We learned to do more with less.
The volunteers are so great at the Access Points we dub them Ambassadors. USDOL came out for a visit, and gave them and the County Commissioners recognitions and awards as well as a small Performance for Excellence Grant as being an outstanding leader in the field.
We are now taking this to the B-side --getting "business" involved and committed. The Ambassadors meet bi-monthly to review and evaluate its goals and get technical assistance from community specialists. Diane Keller, CEO, Ypsilanti Chamber of Commerce visited the Ambassadors to talk about business involvement in the community. Jesse Bernstein, CEO from the Ann Arbor Area Chamber is scheduled soon. The Christian Business Coalition will meet with them in September and hopefully will "adopt" the Access Points and provide additional resources to the sites.
My only regret about this is we didn’t discover Access Points years ago. What a way to go!!! I am so grateful and proud of everyone who makes this all works.
Let me know your ideas, what you think, and how we can make things even better.