Friday, November 21, 2014

One Voice

[What follows is an email message I received after the publication of my Op-Ed essay in The Dallas Morning News on last Monday.  I found it very helpful, as well as inspirational in its own very unique and personal way.]
 
I just read your article on Facebook concerning the homeless and the mentally ill. . . .I live on the poverty level and am mentally ill.  I have Bipolar Disorder with Mania and Depression.  I was a school teacher for 20 years in Lancaster, DeSoto and then Dallas ISD.  Because teaching 6, 7 and 8th graders are so challenging and dealing with the Standardized test, my PA suggested I retire on disability.  I did.  I then worked in retail for 7 years in a declining market.  3 of the 5 stores I worked for closed their doors.  I haven't worked in 4 years.  However,  I do have a interview with Nordstrom on Wednesday and maybe I can start getting back on my feet again.  I lost my car due to an accident and now take the bus.  It is going to be very challenging to take the bus, especially late into the night.  However,  I am going to try my hardest to accomplish this goal. With my little Teacher Retirement, I bring home $1,200 a month.  I cannot live on this. I have to work. I eat so many sandwiches and crackers it is not even funny.  I also take 6 medications to relieve my Bipolar Disorder and Anxiety.  Because I am not on Medicare or Medicaid, I make these co-pays myself. 

What has strengthened me more through all of this is my everlasting relationship I have found with God.  I no longer worry about my future like I use to, but it is very difficult and unnerving to say the least. I find myself on the streets riding the bus talking to all kinds of homeless people.  Most of them have a mental illness, most are very bright, and have at one time been successful.  I too, could follow in this footstep of not having a roof over my head.  The rent, water, electricity keep going up and my check stays the same.

It is very difficult to maintain any sense of normalcy due to my illness.  What I have found, is through my experience, I am able to filter a lot of the mental illness kind of like a schizophrenic not listening to voices.  

I think there is so much more American's can do to help the homeless.  I was very proud to have read your article tonight.  Right now I am not able to help the homeless or mentally ill, however, in my prayers tonight,  I will pray that I may be able to help in the future.

Thank you so much for your article that softens my heart concerning the homeless and mentally ill.  I may not be able to put my heater on as high as I would like, but right now I do have a roof over my head.  Thank you again for such a touching article.

Sincerely,

JS

 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Medicaid and groceries

According to a new study from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Urban Institute, Texas stands to lose $100 billion over the next decade if it sticks to Governor Perry's promise not to expand Medicaid with federal funds made available to the state.  Expanding Medicaid would cost the state something under $6 million, a comparatively meagre investment. 

Refusing the expansion makes no sense whatsoever in economic terms. 

All the talk about Medicaid got me to thinking.  Expanding the low-income health insurance product in Texas faces another fundamental challenge:  even if expanded, there aren't nearly enough doctors in the state who will accept Medicaid patients due to the low reimbursement rates defined by the program, among other reservations associated with treating the very poor. 

Given the stalemate, I'm wondering if Medicaid expansion funds could be used for other efforts to improve community health outcomes among the poor and marginalized?  Already, some states are using these funds to invest in decent, affordable housing for the homeless.  Housing has been identified as a determinant of health, and therefore worthy of use of these funds.  Reports on this innovative approach have been written by our friends at the Corporation for Supportive Housing (www.csh.org).

Today, I'm imagining using Medicaid funds to incentivize grocery stores to move into low-income, marginalized communities.  Why couldn't Medicaid funding be used to wipe out "food deserts" so prevalent in our inner cities in this nation? 

I haven't figured out the business model yet, but it would include several factors. 
  • Advance funds to grocery store chains for development of the stores
  • On-going reimbursement or "value added" supplemental income, if needed, that could be indexed to the pounds of produce sold in the stores. 
  • Company marketing would produce ad campaigns for fresh foods to drive these on-going income supplements. 
Ultimately, the benefit and cost savings would be realized via better public health outcomes in neighborhoods that today are "hot spots" for chronic disease sets like hypertension, diabetes and obesity. 

Just thinking out loud while billions of Texas funds remain on the shelf  in D. C.!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Good jobs. . .in the middle

CitySquare WorkPaths has plans to move toward mid-skill development and living wage jobs.  Watch the following report and then share your reactions.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Strong backs, unbroken spirits

[A slightly edited version of the following post appeared in yesterday's edition of The Dallas Morning News.]

Homeless people are human beings.   

As such, they must find restroom facilities.  They must satisfy their hunger.  They must identify places where they can sit and rest periodically.  And, just like me, they need at least a modest amount of capital to survive, even if hand to mouth.   

Most of my friends, who experience life today without a place to call home, face tough odds when it comes to landing a job.  Earning money is a huge challenge when your home base is an emergency, night shelter or worse, the hard, mean streets.  The countless day-to-day details and challenges of poverty this deep exhaust my capacity to comprehend. 

Like all human beings homeless people make mistakes.  By comparison, the mistakes I make seem to be much more forgiving than the missteps of a person so poor that they have no place to call home.  The social safety net beneath my feet is so strong and woven so tightly that my missteps don’t affect me for very long.  Such is not the case with my very poor friends who need a place to live.   

Recently, during a Dallas City Council Quality of Life Committee meeting, we heard harsh words about some of our weakest neighbors from more than one elected official.  Frustration over “panhandlers” escalated to the extreme counsel that the city needed to get tough on people who beg for money on our streets.  “Break their backs break their spirit — that’s the only way we’re going to win this battle,” one city council member demanded of police. Referencing the negative impact the presence of beggars had on business interests in his district and extremely frustrated, this otherwise, sensible, measured member of city leadership erupted in anger.  

Homelessness frustrates everyone who knows anything about, including and most especially those who live in its terrible grip. 

I would suggest that the person I meet on the street who begs for pocket change or a meal already has had his/her spirit broken at least to some extent.  I also know that the remedy to the frustrating reality of people begging on our streets will not be found by throwing folks in jail.   

So, what can we do? 

First, we need aggressive, stepped up outreach to chronically homeless persons who live on our streets.  The goal would be to assess vulnerability and to secure every available benefit for this segment of our community, including disability income, health care, SNAP (food stamps), shelter and ultimately permanent supportive housing.  This will require political will, an increase in public funding, and additional case workers from the public and non-profit sectors who willingly work together to deliver relief and hope.  The return on such investment for everyone would be substantial. 

Second, we must realize that our jails can no longer be allowed to serve as the public mental health system for the poorest people among us. Adequate funding for our mental health system would dramatically improve the “quality of life” all of us experience on our streets.   We’re paying today for three decades of under-investment in these vital services.

Third, we must develop hundreds of additional units of permanent supportive housing for those who live in shelters and/or on the streets of our city.  No matter how effectively we may intervene in the lives of people so poor that they are forced to beg on our streets, without real housing we will not achieve the outcomes we all desire.   

Homelessness frustrates everyone who knows anything about it.  Business owners and merchants, law enforcement personnel, homeowners in crossroads neighborhoods, drivers stopped at traffic lights at busy, urban intersections, couples out for an evening downtown—all share concern and some aggravation at the presence of homeless persons who beg for assistance.  However, none are more frustrated than those who know homelessness as a personal, defining experience and reality.  

Rather than breaking human backs and human spirits, the better approach would involve us in straightening and strengthening backs and restoring spirits as a community distinguished by its radical care for all of its members. 

 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Poverty

Cryin' baby
Cold, damp floor
Empty fridge
Broke down car
Piled up bills
Howlin' heater
Late for work
Prayin' long
Demanding boss
Same old soup
Confusing homework
Outgrown school clothes
Losing sleep
Stale bread
Hearing gunshots
Son's got attitude
Family strung out
Friends need help
Fast food treat
Man in jail
Kids need dad
Broken sidewalk
Shattered windows
Cops don't come
Judged by zip code
Church so cold
No green grass
Broken glass
Wild dogs
Doctor helps
Can't fill script
Stressed out
Loud, loud world
Bus transfer
Invisible life
Streets seem near
Options sad
Baby cryin'.



Friday, November 14, 2014

More in news about the Opportunity Center

From Dallas Morning News:

CitySquare opening a new center for East and South Dallas
By ROBERT MILLER / Staff Writer

When CitySquare calls its new facility an opportunity center, it’s not kidding.

The CitySquare Opportunity Center will offer low-income residents of Fair Park, South Dallas and East Dallas job training, food distribution, a wellness center and a community cafe. AmeriCorps, Work Force Solutions of Greater Dallas, LIFT, Per Scholas and CitySquare’s WorkPaths will have offices there. CitySquare raised $15 million to build the 52,000-square-foot facility, which is easily accessed by DART.

“We found neighbors offer the most valuable opinions about our work,” said Larry James, president and CEO of CitySquare. “Over and over, I have heard that just trying to get from place to place in search of help is an insurmountable problem. The Opportunity Center will place key services and economic opportunities in one central location to allow us to serve more of our neighbors, many of whom become some of our very best employees and volunteers.”

Read entire report here.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Building stuff

Building stuff is hard.

We've been through the process several times now.  It never gets easier.

Thursday we are set to open our new Opportunity Center.  We really aren't ready to open, but we decided two months ago that this Thursday would be the day.  Two of our three partners are operational.  We need to get moved in, and we will make it.  But, it's not been easy. 

The project itself has been a challenge. 

Thanks to so many private donors, we've been able to construct a very funky, urban cool structure at one of the major gateways to South Dallas-Fair Park.  From the beginning we were committed to developing a first class community center that would gather resources and partners to deliver a collective impact on one of the poorest areas of Dallas. 

When you work among "the poor," folks who possess limited material resources, you have to make peace with changes in vision even in mid-stream!  I've signed off on multiple change orders, all of which seemed justifiable at the time, given the circumstances. 

But who really knows?

What I do know for certain is that we care for people consigned to lives in "the surround" of poverty.  In fact, it's not too much to say that we love them.  They are our friends, our neighbors, people who are worth our highest and best efforts and resources.  The "poor" are our very best partners and they are experts on the subject of poverty.

And, I know our new center will make a huge, transformative difference in the lives of the people who enter its doors. 

That certainty makes all the uncertainty and difficulty seem very, very small indeed. 

Monday, November 03, 2014

Managed chaos

Earl Shorris speaks of "the surround" of life experienced by persons who live in low-income families, communities and realities (see Riches for the Poor:  The Clement Course in the Humanities).  In "the surround" of poverty, people scratch and struggle and fight to survive in ways that the majority of the non-poor population cannot begin to understand. In such a social and personal context, space for calm thought comes at a premium and is exceptional, if it comes at all. 


People in "the surround" of poverty spend most of their energy, effort and strength managing the chaos that fills their lives.


Not long ago, I sat in a circle of a dozen men.  The group was part of a workforce training program designed to train and employ under-skilled, unemployed, ex-incarcerated men.  As part of the Monday morning "wake up" exercise, the leader asked each person share what kind of weekend they had enjoyed. 


Going around the circle, we heard how things had been since Friday.  As I listened, a couple of things struck me. 


First, every man who spoke told us what they had had to eat over the weekend.  Some went into great detail in describing how well or how poorly they had eaten.  Clearly, this was a group of men who had known hunger and want.  Their appreciation for a good meal pressed me hard, as I realized how thoughtless I am about how freely I eat and how I seldom miss a meal. 


Second, a few of the men described really traumatic situations that they had been in or near over their weekend.  One told of gang type fights he had observed and escaped as quickly as possible.  Another man after telling us of his meal, reported that his brother had been shot and seriously wounded.  He feared that his brother might be paralyzed due to the injury.  After sharing this troubling news, he pivoted quickly to talk about a football game he had enjoyed watching.  The juxtaposition of delight and agony and his ability to slide from one side of life to the other made me think of Shorris's notion of life in an unmanageable "surround" thrust on people by poverty. 


Working among, living near and loving "the poor" calls for new wisdom that must involve a new commitment to listening carefully, speaking less and displaying an honest, unknowing humility.  

Friday, October 24, 2014

To trust "the poor"

We've wondered about this very direct approach for some time at CitySquare.

 Making the transition to the domestic, U. S. poverty context would likely present some new, unique challenges.

However, I continue to believe that there is an application to be found here for a place like Dallas. I base my opinion/hunch on my high regard for "the poor" and my trust that low-income persons can do a great deal for themselves.

What do you think?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A message from our partners. . .


 
October 20, 2014

To:        Dallas Faces Race Partners and Subscribers

From:    Lauren Embrey and the Embrey Family Foundation
             Cecilia and Garrett Boone and The Boone Family

             Foundation
 
As Dallas’ major racial equity initiative, Dallas Faces Race is
confronted with a real life and immediate situation in the
aftermath of Ebola patients being diagnosed in our city.
         
We are disturbed by reports about the racial bias that
immigrant communities and communities of color have been
experiencing as a result of Ebola panic.

People in the Vickery Meadows neighborhood are experiencing
bias related to job security, service providers and taunting at
sporting events.  Others are being turned away from restaurants
and being told that they brought this disease to the US.

We understand that people are afraid.  Targeting victims of Ebola

and shunning whole communities is not going to keep us safe.  

We know the people of Dallas are good people who care about

each other.  While we may not intend to discriminate or divide,
that is in fact the impact of individual and institutional decisions
over the last few weeks.

We call on Dallas Faces Race Partners, our community and our

public officials to do three important things in this moment.

First:  Call out discriminatory behavior whenever and wherever

you hear it or see it. Let people know that things like refusing to
serve people at local businesses on the basis of their looks or
national identities is not legal, and not okay.

Second:  Show your support to the communities of Vickery

Meadows and the nonprofits that serve them.  Vickery Meadow
Youth Development Foundation is one example, learn more at
www.vmydf.com.  And if you are interested in volunteering to
support individual or group needs or neighborhood projects,
please contact Ellen Mata at Northpark Presbyterian Church
for more information:  emata@northparkpres.org or
214-363-5457 ext. 24.

Third:  Make your own statement to your contacts condemning

xenophobic and racially biased actions in the aftermath of this        
crisis. Share success stories and lift up positive examples.

Our country and city have experienced such waves before.

Xenophobia and targeting innocent people for punishment
were problems when we first earned of AIDS, H1N1, and SARS.
There were terrible consequences for communities at the heart
of those crises.  It's up to us to step forward, broaden
awareness and make sure we don't repeat history. Ebola will
be solved, but the impact of divisive behavior will last much
longer.

Read more:   Dallas’ Vickery Meadow residents enduring backlash
over Ebola. The Dallas Morning News, October 6, 2014
 
Copyright © 2014 Dallas Faces Race, All rights reserved.
Our website is: http://dallasfacesrace.com

       

Sunday, October 19, 2014

What CitySquare needs from you. . .

Our numbers continue to explode!

 More and more wonderful men, women, children, families pass through our doors every day.

Frankly, the pace overwhelms our team more often than not.

Further, the waves of people seeking a better life wash over our day-to-day financial capacity producing practical challenges, especially related to cash flow.

Between 70 and 75% of our funding involves designations and restrictions that do not allow us to use these dollars to cover short term cash needs. Ironically, while our bank statements remain strong, our available cash comes and goes over the cycle of the year.
Here's what we need: long term, serious investors in the work of CitySquare. Investors who support our work financially without restrictions or the limitations of designations as to how these funds may be used.  In other words, we need general funds without restrictions.

Translation:  We need monthly donors who consider themselves "members" of the CitySquare family.

Like to accept this challenge?

Email me today at ljames@CitySquare.org or contact me on Twitter (@lmjread) and we'll enroll you in this special "investors'" group!

As this investors' fund grows, I'll report on its status here, as well as in other social media venues.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Reflections after two decades

I've been at this now for over twenty years. 

Yesterday, I moved my office from 511 N. Akard in the heart of Downtown Dallas to our new Opportunity Center across I-30 in South Dallas-Fair Park.  It is exciting to be back in a neighborhood where people are fighting hard to scratch out a better life for themselves and their families. 

Of course, the same thing is underway in our Downtown building--a 15-story, neighborhood in vertical. 

CitySquare, like the neighbors we engage, is edgy. 

I mean, we got "attitude" when it comes to poverty, how sick and tired we are of it and how sold out we are to see it diminished significantly. 

Because we live on "the edge" here in more ways than I can count, we never stop studying, listening, learning, changing, trying, innovating, questioning, challenging and battling. 

Our new center serves as our latest "Exhibit One" in this regard.

We designed the Opportunity Center to function as a "collective impact" resource for people serious about improving their lives through hard work, various training options, education about managing scarce resources and openness to willing and helpful mentors/coaches who are eager to get involved in the progress of individuals and of our larger community. 

But, we've always done weird stuff here. 

Our "standard operating procedure" includes things like:
  • Directing funding opportunities away form ourselves to other organizations, if we feel others could have more impact on the entire problem in question.
  • Listening, I mean really listening, to the very, very poor and the down and out.
  • Shaping responses to poverty based on what we've heard from the poor. 
  • Hiring people with no background in non-profit organizations or with social services, as classically understood (myself included!).
  • Experimenting with approaches, programs and investments, again and again, seeking better breakthroughs for our neighbors.
  • Starting efforts before we know everything about what we're doing.
  • Stopping things that don't work, and stopping them as quickly as possible.
  • Refusing to be silent when policy reforms are needed, even when being vocal may threaten our position with some potential or current supporters.
  • Tolerating eccentric, sometimes difficult team members because of their devotion and their effectiveness when it comes to getting the job done for "poor" folks. 
  • Never wasting time to ask for permission to do what is clearly the right thing. 
I could go on, but I'll stop here.

Reflecting helps me understand why after more than two decades I still love coming to work every day. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Giving by income level during recent "tough times"

Here's a graphic display of the impact of the recent recession on giving among various income levels with the lower earnings strata beginning on the left with earnings moving up to the right.

Interesting.

Reactions?


Monday, October 13, 2014

Google Wisdom

Over time I've learned, surprisingly, that it's tremendously hard to get teams to be super ambitious.  It turns out most people haven't been educated in this kind of moonshot thinking.  They tend to assume that things are impossible, rather than starting from real-world physics and figuring out what's actually possible.  It's why we've put so much energy into haring independent thinkers at Google, and setting big goals.  Because if you hire the right people and have big enough dreams, you'll usually get there.  And even if you fail, you'll probably learn something important. 


It's also true that many companies get comfortable doing what they have always done, with a few incremental changes.  This kind of instrumentalism leads to irrelevance over time, especially in technology, because change tends to be revolutionary not evolutionary.  So you need to force yourself to place big bets on the future.
Larry Page
Google Cofounder and CEO

from How Google Works
pages xiii-xiv

Friday, October 10, 2014

We must have more housing for those without!

From The New York Times. . .

The Solution to Chronic Homelessness? Try Homes.

When people end up on the street and stay there, it’s usually not just because they can’t afford the rent. A whole host of things have come apart in their lives.

Putting a life back together is hard, especially without a roof and a bed. The longtime practice of getting tough with people who are down-and-out — through anti-loitering ordinances and crackdowns on petty offenses like public drunkenness — satisfies a public hunger for enforcing personal responsibility. But some people cannot be punished into  self-sufficiency. For them, the cycle of chronic homelessness – shuttling between jail, emergency room, hospital, shelter and street — can be all but impossible to break.

This is why more policy makers have embraced the idea of supportive housing, also called “housing first,” which admits chronically homeless people into subsidized housing and gets them social services and treatment for health problems and addictions. This approach is more effective, more compassionate and far cheaper than withholding services and shelter while you wait for troubled people to get their acts together.

It’s working across the country, in places like Jacksonville, Fla., and Nashville. It’s working with veterans. A 102-unit supportive-housing complex in the Skid Row section of Los Angeles opened on Wednesday. It includes a health clinic and the headquarters of the Housing for Health division of the county’s Department of Health Services. The complex, called Star Apartments, is beautiful in an artsy-architectural way – its crazily stacked pre-fab units are not what we are used to seeing when the government tackles poverty. But you could also call it beautiful for what it is trying to do.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Colonoscopy, or not?

I took off earlier this week to take care of  a routine wellness screening.

If you haven't scheduled yours, do it today!

That's so very easy to say, to consider, to schedule and to afford, for most of us.

But not for all of us.

Access to quality, basic wellness strategies and health care benefits remains largely unavailable to millions of Texans--almost 5 millions to be exact.  That number represents 32% of our population, and makes us #1 in the number of uninsured in the nation.  A dubious distinction indeed. The translation, deadly. 

People talk about "death panels" in conversations about universal health coverage and its results. 

Really? 

Our current system functions as one giant, pre-wired, "death panel." 

If you don't qualify for insurance coverage of some sort--private or public--you are largely on your own.  The cost of paying for treating the uncovered after their conditions worsen to the point of administering heroic, end of life treatments is astronomical, resulting in huge loses to us all. 

For example, between 2003 and 2006, 30.6% of direct medical care expenditures for minority communities resulted from health inequalities.  Eliminating health inequalities for minorities during the period would have saved $229.4 billion.   The costs of health inequalities and premature death for the same four years totaled $1.24 trillion [see "Building Stronger Communities for Better Health:  The Geography of Health Equity," Dr. Brian D. Smedly, Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies].

As medical staff handled me with great care and respect earlier this week as I accessed a routine preventive procedure, I thought of the 1 of 3 fellow Texans who cannot expect such treatment or experience such options all because they cannot afford to pay

Many who finally do access such treatment will find that it is too little, too late.

Is this really the kind of Texas we want? 

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Facing facts in Dallas, Texas

By way of reminder, here's a "check list" of facts that I discovered during the past several months working as Chair of Mayor Mike Rawlings' Task Force on Poverty in Dallas.

--Between 2000 and 2012, population in Dallas increased by 5%.  During that same period, poverty grew by 41%.

--Dallas competes with Philadelphia for being the 3rd or 4th poorest city in the U. S.  We go back and forth on this "distinction."

--Dallas is the poorest city in the US among cities reporting a population of 1MM or more.

--In Dallas, 38% of our children live in poverty.

--In Dallas public schools about 90% are eligible for free and reduced lunches.  That percentage is 73% for public school children who live and go to a public school in Dallas County.

--Increasing numbers of us live in area of highly concentrated poverty and the trend is spreading.  In 2000, Dallas reported 18 census tracts of high concentration of poverty (about 10% of all our poor). In 2013, that number had increased to 32 tracts (about 20% of all our poor). 

--Areas of concentrated poverty produce health and social outcomes in a context of "toxic stress," a condition that has been identified and studied in the last decade.  "Toxic stress" results from a pathological, comprehensive "surround" that confronts our very poor neighbors here in Dallas day after day.

--Name the social, community challenge and identify its presenting data, and the poverty maps overlay perfectly:  asthma, health, housing, test scores, wages, employment and access to goods and basic services.  Poverty drives all of our negative, deadly data reports.

What's the answer? 

How do we go forward? 

Any serious plan to cut into poverty must involve serious conversations about wages and tax policy.

We have neglected our human "infrastructure" for far too long.  Our short-sighted policies have caught up with us.  We must act decisively for the sake of our community's future. 

And, the operative value, the back drop for every conversation, debate and action seems clear to me:  COURAGE!

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Poverty. . .a real issue

The poor among you

By Ken Camp on March 30, 2012
© The Baptist Standard
They gather at dawn at day-labor centers or designated parking lots where contractors hire workers. Some stop on their way to pick up a cheap breakfast taco at a convenience store, buying their meal from an employee earning minimum wage. At the store, they wait in line with members of a crew purchasing gas for the mowers and trimmers they will use to cut the grass of other people's lawns.

They are the working poor—people who may work more hours a week than the average salaried employee, but they do it at a cobbled-together assortment of part-time jobs without benefits. Some find themselves trapped in the situation because they lack the education or technical skills to find a better job. Others lost salaried positions due to economic recession and are working part-time or temporary jobs to try to make ends meet.

Continue reading. . .

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Wisdom at the Margins


Standing at the Margins


There is important wisdom to be gleaned from those on the margins. Vulnerable human beings put us more in touch with the truth of our limited and messy human condition, marked as it is by fragility, incompleteness and inevitable struggle. The experience of God from that place is one of absolutely gratuitous mercy and empowering love. People on the margins, who are less able to and less invested in keeping up appearances, often have an uncanny ability to name things as they are. Standing with them can help situate us in the truth and helps keep us honest.