Hundreds gather for Poverty Conference in Longview
Oct. 15, 2015 at 11:29 p.m.
Between the Longview hotel where he stayed the night before and the conference where he was speaking about solutions to poverty, Geoffrey Canada said Thursday, he saw them: Telltale signs of poverty, just like the ones he's seen in cities across this nation.
It could be bars on the doors and windows of homes, he said, trash-filled lots, or children out on the street when they should be in school or at home with an adult.
"It's a cancer on our society. It's against what America stands for, against what our faith stands for," said Canada, who addressed about 500 people who came together at LeTourneau University for the 2015 Poverty Conference. "There are places in America that, just driving through, you realize those children don't have a shot."
Canada is an educator, author and social activist who 30 years ago founded the Harlem Children's Zone, a nonprofit organization that's working to break the cycle of poverty in that New York neighborhood.
The range of tools his organization used there, he said, can find application in troubled areas in any city. But it's important to realize there is no silver bullet.
"In America, we are consumed with a belief that there's a magic number, you can do one thing ... that will make things different," he said. "And I thought that growing up in a place like (Harlem), you had to change that place. You had to go out and physically rebuild a sense of community."
Canada himself grew up in the South Bronx, New York, during the 1960s, and said he understands the sense of hopelessness a child feels when he's surrounded by violence, drug addiction, bad schools and ineffective city bureaucracies. Finding solutions to that hopelessness became his life's work, and he began his career working to create a safe space for children in Harlem.
"We went block by block by block," he said. "We cleaned it up, we got rid of the trash, we made sure we created spaces that looked like people cared about their community.
"Despair is contagious," he said. "But so is hope."
Area educators, concerned residents, students and representatives from 16 local agencies serving low-income or homeless residents came to the conference, which was hosted by the Junior League of Longview, to hear Canada speak then spend the afternoon learning about what poverty looks like in East Texas.
In an exercise called Poverty Simulation, attendees were divided into "families" and asked to "live" as low-income families for a "month" during the two-hour session.
"I was a mom, and I was just really sad that I didn't really get to see my kids at all," English education junior Kayla Vanwager said of her role in the simulation. "One of (the children) got expelled, one of them got suspended, and I wanted to sit down and talk with them. ... I wanted to be involved, but I was so busy working and paying the next bill that I didn't know my kids."
Vanwager and the other simulation families were challenged in scenarios giving them monthly household incomes of about $1,300 and expenses of about $1,500, some with Medicare or food stamps assistance and others without.
"I think that's a really big issue you see in poverty, is families having to work multiple jobs to make ends meet and then they don't have time to be around kids," said Lyndell McAllister, session leader and mentoring program director for Partners in Prevention. "Then the kids are unsupervised and getting into trouble, and for the parents that's just one more thing to deal with. So the feelings are building, and we've laughed a lot, but we get to go home, don't we?"
At least three of the simulation families admitted they resorted to or encouraged theft to make ends meet.
In another session, participants discussed activities and events that families with limited incomes could attend and participate in to spend time with each other.
"Sometimes they have open gyms at the churches or other family activities that you can do together for free," suggested Melissa Kitchens, Children's minister at Alpine Church of Christ.
Keeta King, program and community outreach coordinator for Partners in Prevention, led a World Café roundtable discussion focused on ways to maintain a sense of normalcy while living one paycheck away from poverty.
"The purpose of this is to talk to people from different backgrounds, different ethnicities, different experiences and have open, honest dialogue about issues that are sensitive to talk about," she said. "The goal is for people to leave with a broader understanding of how to provide services to people in poverty."
In another building, leaders of local missions were discussing what homelessness really looks like in Longview.
"These are just not people who are going to scream at you, 'I'm homeless,'" Kristi Bogle-Sherman, executive director of Newgate Mission, said of homeless people she has met who have and maintain jobs even as they work to find housing. "The point that I think we're trying to make is just being aware of how often you come in contact with this — and don't even know."
The tricky thing about perception, said Eric Berger, executive director of Hiway 80 Rescue Mission, is that it's true to some extent but never tells the full story.
"Most of the people that we serve, if you saw at Wal-Mart, you wouldn't think they're homeless," he said. "And I think that's the biggest challenge about perceptions that come from the media and all these places. Is not that it can't be true, but it's a much bigger world. It's not just because of the economy, but for many different reasons that are really diverse."