First Person

Social Services: Listen to People Who Have Experienced Poverty

In 2009, after caring for a terminally ill parent, I became homeless and destitute due to circumstances beyond my control.

The Unites States Interagency Counsel on Homelessness provides funding to states for programs designed to create permanent housing situations for individuals and families in danger of becoming homeless. All of these programs are administered by local Boards of Social Services—often simply called “social services.” Where I live in Ocean County, New Jersey, the Board provides a motel room for emergency housing through a program called Special Response. Motel owners located on the Jersey Shore subsidize their incomes during the winter months by taking in clients of social services through this program.

So I was in a motel room in a seasonally deserted town I was unfamiliar with and told that I have three months to find permanent housing. I was given a W-9 tax form to present to potential landlords. The W-9 would allow the local housing agency to pay landlords as vendors of the state. However, I soon found out that most apartment owners wouldn’t take me in for three purported reasons: One, the owners claimed that if they took me in then they would be legally obligated to take in any other client that social services sent their way; two, they said that the local Housing Office at social services was unreliable and took forever to pay rents; and three, as I would soon learn myself, they said that the Housing Office was notorious for arbitrarily changing its policy regarding housing assistance.

Most people in a situation like I was in give up and return to whatever it is they were trying to get away from – abusive spouses, dysfunctional families, drug-and crime-infested neighborhoods. And then there are those – such as the survivors of natural disasters, and people who lost jobs and had homes foreclosed during the Great Recession, and veterans who were denied benefits – who have no place to return to and all too frequently end up wandering the streets during the day and setting up tents on public land at night. Because these people are no longer enrolled in any housing program, this is a statistical ‘success’ to local officials administering the program, even as the number of homeless people rises. This cynical manipulation of statistics is a betrayal of the public trust given to the local Board of Social Services to provide financial and housing assistance to members of their communities who need it.

While I was still in my home and recovering from the loss of my mother, I became a member of a small nondenominational church that administered a community homeless outreach program. Local apartment owners utilized the outreach as a way of ‘screening’ prospective renters. They were willing to rent to people who had rent subsidies, but first they wanted to be assured that they are not opening their doors to former rent truants, violent criminals, drug users, or other problematic tenants.

That’s how I secured ‘permanent’ housing within three months. I’m not sure what I would have done without the involvement of this grassroots program that helped me navigate my local housing office’s byzantine process.

But then I received a letter last year informing me that the “permanent” housing program I was in was being terminated by The Board of Social Services in Ocean County. No explanation was given; no recourse offered. Trying to find alternatives before I became homeless, I applied to several federal affordable housing facilities. Miraculously, it seemed, just a few days after being told I no longer had an affordable, permanent place to live, I received a letter informing me that an affordable housing unit was available.

People assume that my local social services board coordinated this move. They didn’t. If you are fortunate enough to find a case worker who assists you with obtaining Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and other basic necessities, as I was, they are still powerless to influence the outcome of your ‘permanent’ housing situation. These types of practices are not only detrimental to the morale of the clients of social services, but to its workforce as well.

When we hear from people who have experienced poverty, we get better policy.

We need the people who administer social services at the state and local levels to do a better job of providing programs and policies that work in people’s lives.

When we hear from people who have experienced poverty, we get better policy. For example, no one who has lived in acute financial distress would have ever come up with a solution as inane as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. Can you imagine? “Here’s what we’ll do: we’ll make the process of obtaining assistance more complicated and, in the end, provide fewer people with less assistance for a shorter period of time!” Sure, people flew off “the rolls” – and right into the woods, onto subway platforms and, penultimately, into hospital emergency rooms. So many have had their lives cut short as a result of homelessness.

Someone recently asked me what my first priority would be for policy reform, and this is it: lobby to get a member of the community who has experienced programs such as Emergency Housing Assistance, SNAP, or TANF, onto the Local and State Boards of Social Services. This, I feel, is the only way we can begin to get administrators to better understand the needs of their ‘clients’, and to be held more accountable for their policies and actions.

What we need is a movement that empowers individuals who have experienced acute financial distress with the political wherewithal they need to stand on their own. We’ve done this successfully with immigration and marriage equality, why not poverty?



Stop Ignoring Residential Segregation and the Concentration of Poverty

Over the last two weeks, disturbing images of Baltimore’s civil unrest have flooded mainstream and social media.

For many, the images recall other past uprisings still fresh in our nation’s collective memory. Take Ferguson, or the Los Angeles uprisings of 1992, for example. Different locations, similar scenarios, and the usual suspect – police brutality against people of color. But the similarity between what has happened in Baltimore and in other places suggests an inconvenient truth: The unrest in Baltimore is not a sporadic accident. Rather, it is a dramatic example of what has gone wrong in our society for several decades—most notably, how we have failed to deal with residential segregation and the concentration of poverty which are the underlying causes of repeated unrest.

Despite the promises of the fair housing movement and subsequent policies addressing residential segregation and poverty concentration, each continues to persist in our inner-cities and has proliferated well into the suburbs. Current efforts to break up concentrations of poverty often involve the movement of families from high-poverty areas to more affluent neighborhoods through the administration of Housing Choice Vouchers. Although vouchers and the programs relying on them – like Moving to Opportunity – have yielded positive results for many families, moving families from high-poverty areas through vouchers cannot be our nation’s only answer to residential segregation.

First, such dispersal efforts face significant barriers due to political opposition and resistance from both displaced individuals and receiving communities. Leaving one’s neighborhood and support networks can represent a critical source of social and psychological hardship. In addition, vouchers are often difficult to use in low-poverty areas, due to the current shortage of affordable housing, some landlords’ reluctance to accept vouchers, and persistent housing discrimination. Therefore, the implementation of dispersal programs often risks re-concentrating the poor into low-income neighborhoods with very few opportunities.

The problems that inner cities face are structural – rooted in institutions that restrict the resources and opportunities

The primary reason we cannot rely on vouchers alone, however, is simple: the problems that inner cities face are structural – rooted in institutions that restrict the resources and opportunities that are available to residents. Baltimore’s civil unrest is not really just a reaction against police brutality. It is a cry for recognition and social justice from marginalized communities who do not have full access to basic rights – including the right to their city – because they are locked in areas of concentrated poverty. Baltimore should serve as a wake-up call for policy makers, practitioners and advocacy groups who – in spite of their good intentions – still operate in an un-coordinated fashion and in separate silos.

There is no doubt that the revitalization of inner-city neighborhoods through housing construction and redevelopment represents a critical step to alleviate poverty concentration. Brick and mortar approaches alone, however, will not solve the problem.

Several actions would ensure that there are opportunities for self-development available to people residing in areas of concentrated poverty, including: (1) encouraging the development of job training centers and social entrepreneurship in inner cities; (2) retaining and improving existing affordable housing and protecting it from speculative private development; (3) raising minimum wages and providing access to better paying jobs; (4) encouraging a sense of hope and ownership to marginalized groups – especially among youth – by providing people of different ages the opportunity to make planning decisions in their own neighborhoods and institutions; (5) fostering healthier neighborhoods – by improving access to high-quality food resources, expanding recreational opportunities, and increasing protection against environmental hazards like lead paint, hazardous waste repositories, and landfills that are disproportionately present in low-income communities.

We, as a society, ought to stop trying to fix the symptoms of poverty concentration and instead attack its causes. How many more LA’s, Katrinas, Fergusons, and Baltimores do we need before we stop pushing the replay button as if these events were just another spectacle to watch on cable?


First Person

Trying to Survive in a Broken Economy

My name is John D’Amanda, and I have been a loyal employee at a McDonald’s in Oakland, California for five years. Prior to working in fast food, I was a small business owner like millions of Americans. I made good money washing windows for houses, stores, malls, and contractors in the San Francisco/Alameda/Contra Costa counties area. But when the economy tanked, my business went with it as people tightened their belts and stopped hiring window washers. I lost many customers, struggled to pay my bills, and was eventually evicted from my apartment. I even lost the car that enabled me to travel to my jobs and couldn’t afford to buy another car. I came close to being out on the street.

I continued to work throughout my struggles. Like many others in the new economy, I went from owning my own business to a low-wage, part-time job in the fast food industry. And, even though I found work at McDonald’s, my wages were not enough to rent an apartment of my own, pay medical bills, or buy a car. Fast forward five years and I still experience unpredictable hours, and I am rarely scheduled for even 25 hours a week.

In light of my financial situation, I have cut back on living costs as much as possible. I rent a shared room in a house where I also share a bathroom and kitchen with 7 other people. Although taking the train to work would be much faster, I save money by commuting on the bus. In the evenings, it can take as much as 2 hours to get home. I’ve proactively applied for food stamps, but due to my work schedule and commute time, it has been impossible for me to attend the required in-person meetings.

When Americans work hard, we deserve to be paid enough to support ourselves and our families.

In America, we’re told that if we work hard, we can make it. If we cut back and save and scrimp, we will succeed. I have done these things and I’m still struggling. And so, I’m looking for answers. I ask the people making the policies in Washington, D.C. and California – how did our economy become so broken? What else would have you me do to survive?

Things have improved for me somewhat — my city passed a $12.25 per hour minimum wage, and the raise, which just went into effect, helps me keep up with my bills. Maybe I will be able to save up enough to buy a car so that I can start up my window washing business again. But, with this raise, I have to choose between saving for my business and covering basic living costs such as dental care. I am one disaster away from losing everything.

For example, last month, I went to the emergency room with severe tooth pain. The doctor pulled 7 teeth in one sitting. Now I need dentures that I can’t afford to pay for. My friends and family back home in Florida are going to pass the hat to help me out. But that’s not the way it should be. This isn’t how we fix our broken economy and provide opportunity to people.

We need to fight for $15 an hour. I can speak for myself when I say that, if I made $15 per hour, things would totally change. I could buy a car, afford regular dental care, and maybe even be married and have a house. I could save to reestablish my business and get back on my feet. When Americans work hard, we deserve to be paid enough to support ourselves and our families. That’s why I continue to fight.



The Other Baltimore Story: Ronald Hammond and ‘Routine Injustice’

Last week, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that it would investigate police practices in Baltimore in the wake of demonstrations sparked by the death of Freddie Gray. The next day the tragic story of Ronald Hammond appeared in the Baltimore Sun. Hammond grew up in foster care, suffered from depression, and became addicted to drugs. He was on probation for selling $40 worth of cocaine when he was caught with $5 worth of marijuana. For this minor infraction, Judge Lynn Stewart-Mays revoked his probation and sentenced him to twenty years in prison. Presumably, the judge believes this punishment is consistent with justice. The prosecution continues to defend the draconian sentence. Other than the public defender who is fighting for Hammond’s freedom, everyone else in the system seems to view Hammond as just another expendable life in Baltimore.

That the DOJ is now investigating the Baltimore shooting is a testament to the fact that the nation has suddenly awakened to the disregard that some police departments have for the lives of our most marginalized citizens. In Freddie Gray’s case, a cell phone video helped to publicize the abuse, and then widespread demonstrations forced public officials to pay attention.

But as egregious as the police conduct is in these killings of unarmed black men, it is routine injustice – the utter disregard for the humanity of those arrested and processed every day, often for minor offenses – that wreaks far more havoc on the poorest people in our nation. For every person killed by a police officer, tens of thousands are arrested and processed into prison cells. Ronald Hammonds flood our overflowing penal system, with 2.2 million people now sitting in America’s jails and prisons. They come out incapable of securing housing, employment, or educational loans. Many are not allowed to participate in the democratic process. They are literally rendered second-class citizens.

This routine injustice has destroyed countless lives, families, and communities. But we are so used to it that there is no sense of public outrage. And yet, every day, judges, prosecutors, and elected officials help perpetuate this system, and there are no cell phone videos to record it or demonstrators out there demanding change.

However, there is, in theory, a built in protection against routine injustice – the right to counsel. Lawyers are the guarantee that people will have their voices heard. But Hammond did not have a lawyer when he admitted to possessing marijuana. Fifty-two years after the Supreme Court made clear in Gideon v. Wainwright that the lawyer is the engine necessary to ensure justice, our nation’s public defenders are overwhelmed, under-resourced, and unable to ensure every person brought so carelessly through the system is treated justly.

As egregious as the police conduct is in the killings of unarmed black men, it is routine injustice that wreaks far more havoc on the poorest people in our nation.

But despite these challenges, our public defenders fight mightily—even as most others in the judicial system wish they would just go away and stop interfering with the “efficient” processing of people who are arrested.

The protests in response to the killing of Freddy Gray were led by members of neglected communities throughout Baltimore who denounced the inhumane treatment they receive at the hands of city officials. But the official response only reinforced the demonstrators’ position that their lives are devalued by those in power. While a relatively small group of protesters engaged in destructive behavior, police declared war on all demonstrators. In the first week nearly 500 protesters were arrested, many illegally – swept up for simply being in the vicinity of protests.

Officials in Baltimore showed no regard for the rights of those they rounded up and jailed. Rather than questioning the decision to deal with protesters by locking them up, Governor Hogan facilitated this response. He immediately suspended a Maryland rule that requires anyone detained by police to be brought before a judicial officer within 24 hours to ensure that no one is illegally deprived of their liberty. The Governor’s position was clear: if the rules designed to protect individual liberty make it difficult to process arrestees, they can be disregarded.

Nearly half of this wave of arrests occurred on a single day. Because of the rioting – which Dr. Martin Luther King once described as “the language of the unheard” – the Governor closed the courts the next day. Judges and prosecutors took the day off.   As a result, many protestors were held for two days without any charges being filed, only to be released with no apology for the infringement upon their rights. Never mind the toll these illegal detentions may have taken on the detainees’ employment status, family obligations, or other commitments.

But if no one else felt a sense of urgency about this situation, the city’s public defenders did. They immediately mobilized to challenge illegal detentions and to visit terrified citizens who otherwise would have had no idea why they were being held or what to expect next. They worked throughout the day to interview the detainees and to ensure that their rights were protected. What these public defenders found was jarring.

One public defender described the conditions under which the protesters were confined—many of them “held for days even though they hadn’t been charged with any crime.” There were fifteen women in one cell that was designed to hold a few people for a few hours. Each cell had one sink and one toilet. Water was scarce – the women were instructed that the water from the sink was not safe for drinking. There were no beds, pillows or blankets. There was not enough room for all of the women to lie down at the same time. The women were given four pieces of bread, a slice of American cheese, and a small bag of cookies three times a day. The women didn’t want to eat the bread, so instead they used the slices as pillows “so that they wouldn’t have to lay their heads on the filthy concrete floors.”

By the time the rest of the criminal justice system returned to work on Wednesday, the public defenders had succeeded in demonstrating the illegality of many of these detentions and as a result nearly half of the arrestees were released without charges ever being filed.

But against the backdrop of the demonstrations, this story of how arrested citizens were treated received little attention.   This routine indifference is the story of criminal justice in America. While the six officers charged in the killing of Freddy Gray are back home, many of the Baltimore protesters continue to be held on bonds they are unable to afford.

While cell phone video has helped to tell the story of deadly police abuse, the story of routine injustice is being told by public defenders. They took to social media, television, and blog posts to document the egregious treatment of those arrested.   They served as the voice for people who would otherwise be voiceless. Baltimore shows how, collectively, public defenders who speak on behalf of marginalized people and communities remind us of their humanity and how we all should be treated.

While public defenders have largely been ignored in the conversation about how to reform our broken criminal justice system, as events in Baltimore demonstrate, they are an essential part of the solution. And while it is encouraging to see outrage over what happened to Freddy Gray, justice demands that we muster equal outrage over the Ronald Hammonds of the world, and that we support our public defenders who are trying to make things right.



Following Mother’s Day, Stop Blaming Mothers

In a tradition just as American as Mother’s Day and apple pie, we are often blaming mothers for our nation’s social ills. Historically, low-income, immigrant, and nonwhite mothers have served as easy scapegoats for tough problems like poverty, delinquency, unrest, and “lawlessness.” The recent viral media fixation on Toya Graham, the Baltimore “#MomoftheYear” demonstrates that this trend is in full force. Ms. Graham was caught on video trying desperately to pull her 16-year-old son away from the Baltimore protests. Later, Ms. Graham admitted to reporters that she had “lost it” and was in shock when she was slapping him saying, “That’s my only son, and at the end of the day, I don’t want him to be a Freddie Gray.” In other words, she did not want another young black man to lose his life to racial profiling.

And, who could fault her? Unfortunately many Americans can, relying on stereotypes that expect too much from individual mothers. For example USA Today repeated a tweet that read, “If she raised her son better, she wouldn’t have needed to do that.” And even when the New York Post retorted to support her actions, they similarly relied on these exaggerated notions of personal responsibility, “What Baltimore Mom and Baltimore Son illustrate is the forgotten truth that societal problems begin in the home. More often than we tend to admit anymore, problems can be solved there, too.”

In my own research on mothers raising kids with the burgeoning numbers of invisible disabilities – from ADHD to emotional, behavioral, and higher functioning autism spectrum disorders – I heard many such stories of blaming individual mothers. We have thankfully progressed past the 1950s and 60s when autism was believed directly caused by cold and withholding “refrigerator mothers.” But I discovered that mothers now are criticized if they are not relentlessly tracking down the best treatments, schools, medications, and services to maximize their vulnerable child’s development. We find it easier to shame mothers raising kids with invisible disorders — to send the problems back home to be solved — rather than face the impact of our nation’s disordered economy and lack of opportunities.

We find it easier to shame mothers rather than face the impact of our nation’s disordered economy and lack of opportunities.

Unsurprisingly, I found that single mothers report receiving the most blame from school personnel, healthcare providers, and sometimes from child protective service workers. I spoke with three white single mothers who had received complaints against them of possible child abuse or neglect when their kids were disruptive or aggressive in school. Yet each of these mothers was quickly cleared of any wrongdoing, and two were even happy about the support they received from social workers investigating their “broken” homes. It was only the one black single mother who had her struggling daughter removed from their home. They were only reunited after two years of family court supervision. She told me, “I think that’s what really shocked them, too . . . that I have not missed one social service meeting, one school meeting, one group home meeting. I was at every court-order thing. I guess it took them two years to realize I was a dedicated parent.”

Mothers raising children of color also knew that their children’s disruptive or unruly behavior would be framed through racial lenses. Like Toya Graham, mothers I met raising black sons feared the pernicious stereotype of “dangerousness” that leads to disparate rates of suspensions, expulsions, school failure, and, consequently, the frustration boiling over on the streets of Baltimore. One African American mother, an accomplished professional, feared this was happening to her son even at the age of 6. He was, she explained, very tall for his age, as well as active and impulsive. She hoped the ADHD diagnosis would protect him, but maintained constant vigilance at his private school, where in previous years, “two young black boys . . . I don’t think they were even in the first-grade yet . . . were asked to leave the school.”

It is hard to see how the struggles faced by mothers of young black sons in Baltimore — or the constrained options confronting mothers I met raising children with invisible, brain-based disabilities –have either been created or can be solved at home. Following this Mothers’ Day, let’s stop the mother-blame.