Flint–The Poison of Politics

flintPrior to the environmental fiasco in Flint, I would never have imagined the likelihood that an elected official would make a budget decision that would poison an entire city. It is unimaginable, yet here we are. For those unfamiliar with the widely publicized story, a brief summary is offered.

In 2011 when many cities had still not recovered from the 2008 economic recession, the financially strapped city of Flint was taken over by the state. Then Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, retained emergency managers to cut costs and manage the struggling city.

Two years later, it was decided that Flint should break away from the Detroit water system that pulled water from Lake Heron and join a new water district. In April 2014, Flint switched its water system and started drawing water from the Flint River. There are lead pipes throughout the system and in older homes with copper water pipes that were held together with lead solder, the lead corroded the water. The World Health Organization has said that lead poisoning can cause adverse neurological effects.

The problem is now headline news as reports of sick school children who now have lead poisoning, state EPA officials have resigned, truck loads of donated water arrive in Flint everyday and both the state and federal government officials have declared a state of emergency for the city.

I wish this was just about a bad budget decision, but the cries of environmental racism can’t be overlooked. And not just from political candidates hammering for sound bites. New York Times columnist, Charles Blow wrote,”An entire American city exposed to poisoned water. How could this be? It is hard to imagine this happening in a city that didn’t have Flint’s demographic profile — mostly black and disproportionately poor.”

If not racist it is clearly unjust, unfair, and unacceptable.

Congratulations on the 10th Anniversary of the Gateway Center

This blog is a SHOUT OUT to some fearless Atlanta leaders – Jack Hardin, Debi Starnes, Bonni Ware, Protip Biswas and Horace Sibley and I am sure there are others I have missed. You made a believer out of me!GC

Atlanta’s most needy are better served because of your courageous and innovative leadership. When I was skeptical, they believed they could do the improbable, the impossible – turn an old jail into a vibrant live saving Gateway to a better life for thousands of Atlanta’s homeless people.

This small group of true blue, deeply committed Atlanta residents and seasoned professionals exemplify the best of humankind. They exemplify Margaret Mead’s quote about how and who changes the world – ” never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has”.

The Gateway has served thousands of men, women and children in some of their most needy hours as a shelter, as a place of refuge, as a service provider. Though the Gateway can’t and doesn’t do their work alone, Gateway serves as part of a larger network of organizations whose boards and staff tackle one of the toughest urban issues city leaders face. Every day dozens of families and search unsuccessfully for affordable housing in our city. They rely on the social service sector to provide a safety net, when they can’t do so for themselves. On the 10th anniversary of the Gateway, I offer my heartfelt congratulations to those who launched the organization, to the dozens of partners, donors and supporters who build on yesterday’s accomplishment to enhance the opportunities for some of Atlanta’s most vulnerable residents and most of all the brave clients who fight for a good life for themselves and their families.

THREE LOUD, BOISTEROUS AND DESERVING CHEERS!

Post Katrina Leadership Emerging in New Orleans

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, three New Orleans businessmen and civic leaders, Gerry Barousse, Mike Rodrigue and Gary Solomon, teamed up to play an inspirational role in the rebirth of their beloved city. Their effort to rebuild New Orleans through the creation of the Bayou District Foundation led to demonstrable results in the standard of living and people’s lives. They are part of a new, emerging brand of leadership that we should applaud and support nationally.

Two months after the storm, many people doubted whether certain parts of their city would ever recover. Gerry, Mike and Gary believed otherwise. They decided to focus their attention in the former St. Bernard public housing development, which was largely destroyed by the floods. They created the Bayou District Foundation, a nonprofit that served, to use a football metaphor, as a “community quarterback” for one of the greatest rebuilding efforts in New Orleans. Working with Columbia Residential as its development partner and the Housing Authority of New Orleans, they contacted displaced residents in New Orleans and across the country, engaging those who wanted to shape the new development with their input.

The three men were inspired to take on this enormous challenge after visiting the East Lake neighborhood in Atlanta, where businessman and philanthropist Tom Cousins championed the revitalization of one of the most dangerous and under-invested parts of the city. What the three men saw at East Lake provided a vision for what was possible: a revitalization that could have impact far beyond neighborhood boundaries.

Gerry Barousse, Mike Rodrigue and Gary Solomon understood the potential for a better future for New Orleans that could be accomplished through civic and business leadership. Over the past nine years, the Bayou District Foundation, with Columbia Residential, has led the development of 685 new, high-quality mixed-income apartments at Columbia Parc. Now it’s a fully leased development that is a safe and welcoming environment full of families and individuals spanning a wide range of ages.

Before the storm in 2005, the St. Bernard public housing development was only 72% occupied, according to the Housing Authority of New Orleans, due to the deteriorating condition of the buildings. In addition, it was an unsafe environment for families and children. From 2001 to 2005, there were 684 felonies and 42 murders within the 52-acre site.

Today, crime is virtually nonexistent. All residents of Columbia Parc are either employed, in school, in a vocational training program, or retired, and incomes of residents represent a healthy mix, from low income to those earning six-figure salaries. It is a community where people want to live that offers paths out of poverty for the lowest income residents.

The Bayou District Foundation also partnered with Educare to create an early childhood education center on the campus serving 167 children ages 0-5; created a health clinic with St. Thomas Community Health Center which serves more than 300 patients per month; and will break ground on a new K-8 charter school in 2016.

The leaders of the Bayou District Foundation are taking risks and making long term commitments, tackling issues that have bedeviled American society for generations. They are investing their reputations, connections, political capital and even their philanthropy in neighborhoods that have long suffered from the effects of concentrated poverty. Neighborhoods like this exist in just about every city across the country. The question is, why would leaders like this want to invest in them, and to what end?

The answer is that these leaders care about people and results. They believe that if given the opportunity to grow up and live in a healthy community, every child can succeed in school and achieve their full potential. It sounds idealistic, and it is, but there is now a track record of work in several fields that demonstrates this is no pipe dream.

At Purpose Built Communities, we are looking for more leaders who are not afraid to embark on a difficult path working with the community to transform neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, change lives, and ultimately, create a better country. We should all recognize and support this brand of leadership that can make a real difference in urban areas across the country.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/shirley-franklin/ten-years-after-katrina-n_b_7977198.html

 

The Dispossessed Deserve Better

Kalief Browder

Kalief Browder-Ebony photo credit

“The nature of the criminal justice system has changed. It is no longer primarily concerned with the prevention and punishment of crime,but rather with the management and control of the dispossessed.” From Michelle Alexander’s, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

Mass incarceration is a system designed to imprison people based on racism and classism and being poor is a common denominator.

After Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, media attention highlighted a municipal court system that had a history and tradition of excessively ticketing those in the predominately black community. Some might argue that Michael Brown’s death and the municipal profiteering had little in common, that would be a naïve and reckless assumption.

The attention also drew the ire of state politicians in both parties. State Sen. Bob Dixon was a member of a bipartisan Missouri group of lawmakers who tried to address some of the systemic issues that came to light. Among the issues was the rate at which St. Louis County was ticketing poor minority motorists. It typically takes a long time for statewide policy decisions to be made but in this case, the legislature passed a bill limiting the percentage of traffic revenue cities could keep. House Speaker Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff) said at the time, “We ought to have been prioritizing this a long time ago. It’s not right to have a system in our state where we’ve got municipalities that are basically funding the basic operations of government through traffic fines.”

The U. S. Department of Justice’s report that focused on Ferguson also revealed that national statistics were trending on a similar practice as a revenue generator. If a community is preyed on in the streets and in the courts, it is no surprise that the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson was an incident waiting to happen.

Last week, Atlanta’s Creative Loafing featured a story Fines, Fees and Inequality by Tiffany Roberts that reflects a familiar refrain in other cities and states. A former Fulton County public defender and co-founder of Lawyers United for a New Atlanta wrote the story. The exceptionally data driven piece did not fail to highlight the disparity between race and class as a premise for a questionable public policy. Whether you agree with her conclusion, there is no debate about the trend of the indigent and poor who find themselves with limited legal options if faced with criminal allegations.

Recent changes by the California Judicial Council now allow drivers to appear in court first to challenge a fine before paying it. It was not unusual for a traffic ticket to cost a motorist $500 in a state that reported in 2013 16.6% of its residents lacked enough resources to meet their basic needs.

While traffic fees are just one way to disenfranchise those who can least afford it. The case of New York’s 22 year-old Kalief Browder whose charges were dismissed is another more horrifying example of what happens when defendants can’t pay. In his case the damage was fatal. Kalief committed suicide after spending over three years in Rikers Island. Browder’s family could not afford the $3,000 bail imposed based on an allegation that he stole a backpack. It has been reported and confirmed with video evidence that he was beaten by guards and inmates and he spent two years in solitary confinement. Because he was innocent, Kalief refused plea deals.

And while St. Louis area jurisdictions are paying closer attention to the inequality of traffic fines, a recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch story suggests that fines are being written for other offenses but target the same group.

Of course, we are not simplistically suggesting that criminals should not have their day in court to face allegations of wrongdoing. But the burden of a municipality’s budget whether Ferguson or any other city should not rest on the shoulders of those unable to avoid the persistent pursuit of an unjust policy.

 

This week’s AIDS data is more alarming than the headlines

Beverly L. IsomSisterLove

The headlines this week about the HIV stats in Atlanta were alarming because the data is alarming. “Atlanta is ranked No. 5* among U.S. cities when it comes to the rate of new diagnoses of HIV”; “Atlanta is No. 1 US city with new HIV cases” and “Half of Atlanta’s newly diagnosed HIV patients have AIDS.”

As a Board Member of SisterLove in Atlanta, I am proud of the work that the organization has been doing for decades and the advocacy and leadership of its president Dazon Dixon Diallo but I am also troubled that there still so much more work that has to be done.

A recent study highlights the issue at Grady Health System where they started routine HIV testing in 2013 and has seen an average of two or three patients with HIV every day. Grady Hospital started free HIV testing in its emergency room for every patient no matter why they were there. Unfortunately based on the study, by the time some patients saw the doctor, nearly 3 of 10 already have the virus.

There are a myriad of reasons that people don’t get tested early enough. There is stigma, fear, poverty and misinformation about how the disease is contracted. And a key reason is that not every health care facility offers the convenience of free HIV testing on site. However, community-based organizations like SisterLove have been advocating and offering free testing in a caring and non -judgmental environment for years. Community-based organizations have been leading the charge on educating and empowering communities at risk but the news this week was frustrating even for some of them.

Dazon Dixon Diallo said, “It’s not acceptable to have a zero line item for HIV prevention … It’s unacceptable to not have expanded Medicaid to include HIV testing. It’s not acceptable to have any health department in the state of Georgia that’s currently not trained, equipped and implementing rapid testing … You want me to go on? It’s just a lot,” she said.

SisterLove offers FREE HIV TESTING, Monday through Thursday at 1237 Ralph David Abernathy Blvd., SW Atlanta, Georgia 30310-0558 in Atlanta’s West End neighborhood. While there is still work that needs to be done, maybe the latest news will help our education efforts and decrease the number of new HIV cases. Get tested at SisterLove on Mon. Tues. & Thurs 11- 5 pm By Appointment- Please Call (404) 254-4734…OR TAKE ADVANTAGE OF WALK IN WEDNESDAYS between 11:00 am -6:00 pm, without an appointment.

SisterLove, Inc. has been at the forefront of community-based advocacy for women of color living with HIV/AIDS, for women of color at risk for contracting HIV/AIDS, and for all individuals in marginalized communities who are severely and disproportionately impacted by HIV/AIDS, especially in the Deep South and Global South.

Affordable Housing Matters

affordhousingEvery workday morning, thousands of hard working metro Atlantans commute into the center of the city to work. Often, it is to minimum wage jobs. These hard working individuals clean our high-rise office buildings, cook our “to go” meals, take our vital signs when we are sick and often help build the very offices and residences in which we live and work. Many of these individuals struggle from paycheck to pay check to make ends meet. The American dream of home ownership is not a dream for them … it is a fantasy and is simply not obtainable on a limited income. To have a vibrant, diverse city, the least we can do is make affordable housing a major priority in the city of Atlanta.

Community development is one of the biggest roles city governments play in developing vibrant downtowns. Providing affordable housing is and has been the cornerstone of community development.  Yet, according to the Urban Institute, we must go beyond just providing affordable housing to the working poor. We must use the tools of tax breaks, tax allocation districts and other financial incentives to encourage inner city commercial and residential real development. This helps to offset the high cost of inner-city redevelopment. When we do this, in tandem with encouraging business development, we create new job opportunities in the core city, as well as affordable housing opportunities.

Conversely, when developers purchase valuable city assets, especially for Intown residential redevelopment, it is imperative, as a stipulation to the sale and any related financial incentives; they agree to designate a percentage of new construction units as “affordable housing.” Every mayor since Sam Massell has championed the cause of affordable housing. Especially when the developer is acquiring and receiving both a city asset and tax incentives. This was the case for Atlantic Station, Ponce City Market project, the Centennial Park area redevelopment and should be the same for any city owned site. The city can afford to promote affordable housing options for those whom it is an economic necessity.  Affordable rental housing and affordable homes for purchase are essential elements for successful redevelopment of a city with 23% or higher poverty level residents and many working families who live pay check to pay check, Some years ago businessman Ron Terwillger and former Atlanta Housing Authority leader Renee Glover chaired the Affordable Housing Task Force. The report remains in the city’s files. This extensive report pushed the Council and me to offer $35 million in Affordable Housing Opportunity Bonds. Invest Atlanta as the Atlanta Development Authority had the expertise to manage the allocation of funding to qualified projects and the Council authorized funding to cover the bond financing. At the time we explored adopting inclusionary zoning legislation based on successful models from other cities as a mechanism to mandate mixed income housing development only to find limitations in state law. Perhaps it is time to revisit how the state could support inclusionary zoning legislation.

If we are to have a strong city, if we are to use all our assets to promote equitable and diverse community development that serves families and people at every socio economic level then as residents and taxpayers we must support the city’s efforts to do so even when it costs us money as taxpayers. The steady state of income and opportunity inequity for nearly 25% of Atlanta residents must be tackled unapologetically, consistently and holistically over the decades it might take to move the needle.

 

Read about New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plans for affordable housing that he highlighted today in his State of the City Address.

http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/nyc-mayors-speech-focuses-affordable-housing-28692712

 

Isn’t Being Poor Enough?

foostampsAs factions in Congress debate whether the federal government can afford to support needy Americans through extended unemployment benefits, food stamps, and social security benefits, millions of Americans live everyday in poverty. Researchers suggest that 1 in 5 American households need federal assistance for food security. Food stamps, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP at $80 billion a year it has doubled in five years.

And now those in the medical community are making the link between cutting food aid and higher medical costs. “If you’re interested in saving health care costs, the dumbest thing you can do is cut nutrition,” said Dr. Deborah Frank of Boston Medical Center, who founded the Children’s HealthWatch pediatric research.

Today, poverty is a painful reality for many Americans. States challenging expansion of Medicaid/Medicare, no unemployment insurance extension, minimum wages that are not living wages, a recovering economy with people who have given up looking for work and increasing empty shelves in food banks are logical explanations for why Americans live in poverty.

CBS News reported that Georgia State Representative Greg Morris introduced House Bill 772, which would force low income Georgians to pass drug tests to qualify for food stamps. According to Morris “it’s just fairness and protecting taxpayers’ dollars.” Georgia law currently mandates welfare applicants pass drug tests. Chances are House Bill 772 would be challenged as unconstitutional. Such details don’t seem to matter to some legislators.

Morris’ leadership is needed in Georgia to find ways to expand the economy, to support increased funding for every level of education from preschool through college and technical school, to adopt healthcare coverage for all needy Georgians. What a waste of taxpayer money to chase a bill that most believe is unconstitutional. Though democracy requires full participation from every quarter of the electorate, it is frustrating to have our legislators waste taxpayer money on such frivolous efforts.

 

Aren’t We Tired of Being Sick and Tired?

guardianlv“We are in the midst of the worst rental affordability crisis that this country has known.” Those were the words of HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan at a press conference in Washington, DC.

Add his comments to one of the coldest Thanksgiving in awhile in Atlanta, which means higher heating bills. Plus sustained high demand by working families for food assistance from Atlanta Community Food Bank and others. The Food Bank serves as the primary source of food for many food insecure homes and nearly 59,000 different people visit each week. Some 1.8 million Georgians currently live in poverty. Let’s not forget the persistently high post 2008 Recession unemployment rates which mask the high rates of the underemployed and those who after months of searching have given up their fruitless job search. For all of its strengths and renowned business successes America hasn’t cracked the public policy code to eliminating poverty for vast numbers of Americans. There have been some poverty solutions like Social Security that has helped many seniors avoid poverty. The growing national debate and local and state government action about raising the minimum wage has the potential to help lift thousands of Americans out of the grasp of poverty.

According to economist Paul Krugman, “the main effect of a rise in minimum wages is a rise in the incomes of hard-working but low-paid Americans — which is, of course, what we’re trying to accomplish.” Krugman’s assessment is something that many have known for awhile, in fact more than a decade ago a distinguished panel of scholars, business and civic leaders led by former Morehouse College President Walter Massey studied the minimum wage issue and recommended Atlanta adopt a Living Wage Ordinance based on the State of Utah’s model. In the spirit of no good deed going unpunished-the Georgia Legislature decided Atlanta shouldn’t incentivize bidders in procurements to pay their employees a living wage which was calculated at the time at $10.50 an hour. Private businesses, nonprofit organizations nor other governments would have been directly impacted by the city’s ordinance unless they sought to do business through its procurement processes. Since Atlanta’s well-meaning, progressive efforts, currently there are over 120 cities that have wage ordinances.

Taking liberty with famed civil rights activist, Fannie Lou Hamer, “Aren’t we tired of being sick and tired” and broke when we do a good day’s work and still unable to pay the rent or feed our children and ourselves.

America shows its compassion in a crisis, now millions of working men and women need us to show compassion in action every day.

Learn more about the needs of hard working people and children in need

Hands on Atlanta  http://www.handsonatlanta.org/HOC__Affiliate_Home_Page

Atlanta Community Food Bank    http://www.acfb.org

Feeding America      http://feedingamerica.org/?show_shov=1

Meals on Wheels     http://www.mowaa.org

Toys for Tots http://www.toysfortots.org/about_toys_for_tots/toys_for_tots_program/default.aspx

Salvation Army    http://salvationarmyusa.org/usn/christmas-assistance

 

Politics and Poverty are Kissing Cousins?

SNAPAs unemployment for this year steadies around 7.5 and immigration and student loan interest rates preoccupy the headlines and blogosphere, you might have missed the House’s rejection of the five-year, $940 billion farm bill that would have cut food stamps by $2 billion annually over 10 years.

Today about one in seven Americans have to survive on $4.50 a day. The growing number of recipients is due to many who have lost their jobs and can’t find employment or they are not making a living wage. The income limits and amount of benefits received is based on family size, gross and net income. The monthly net income for a family of four has to be less than $1,838 to qualify. For those critics who point to fraud in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), that number is less than 4% and defies the myth of people cheating the system.

Currently, an estimated 48 million Americans receive food assistance through SNAP, about 15 percent of the US population. In 2010, SNAP provided about $2.6 billion dollars in food benefits to a monthly average of over 1.6 million people in Georgia. The program served 64 percent of those eligible for benefits in Georgia.

This link provides more information on Georgia

Poverty and politics should not be kissing cousins, when Americans from rural counties to urban cities are struggling to feed their families. Some are surviving and others are living day-to-day, visiting food banks for the first time in their lives, asking churches, mosques and synagogues for assistance and exhausting federal benefits from unemployment to food stamps. The poor are faced with far too many challenges during these difficult times, and unfortunately they are doing it at an empty table.

Why the Farm Bill includes food stamps in the first place is partially the problem. When political decisions determine the fate of policy, there are very few winners. For now, the issue has been averted while families anxiously await a recovery of any kind.

Welfare By Any Other Name

If you listen to some legislators around the country whowant to drug test welfare recipients, the unemployed and anyone seekinggovernment assistance, you might wonder where the growing hostility andopposition to government aid comes from. You might question if opponentsdisagree with the policy or the people.
The welfare system in the United States began in the 1930sduring the Great Depression. The expanded legislation in the 1960s includedthose who were neither elderly nor disabled. Recipients were eligible toreceive welfare payments, Medicaid, food stamps, special stipends for pregnantwomen and young mothers and in some cases subsidized housing. Because womenheaded so many poor households in the 60’s, the number of families on welfareincreased from 4.1% to 10% by 1980.
During the Clintonadministration the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity ReconciliationAct (PRWORA) gave control of welfare financial assistance to the states. Thereis significant statistical data that suggest there are racial disparities inthe welfare system. While the issue of the importance of welfare reform can bedebated for years to come the data seems clear. Martin Gilens’ wrote a booktitled, Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media and the Politics of Anti-Poverty Policy, which surmises that the animosity and negative feelings aboutwelfare have a direct link to a perception that welfare is a program forAfrican Americans and the questionably poor.
So when I heard Georgia State Rep. Jason Spencer (R -Woodbine) who introduced legislation requiring drug tests for TemporaryAssistance for Needy Families (TANF) applicants say, “Georgia taxpayershave a vested interest in making sure that their hard-earned tax dollars arenot being used to subsidize drug addiction.” I was reminded of the originalintent and purpose of government assistance. And I was also reminded of themisconceptions and misguided myths that underscore the overt disdain for thepoor. A similar law in Florida was suspended by a Federal District Judge nodoubt because the research results confirmed that only two percent of thosetested were found to have any traces of drugs in their system.
Welfare was designed to promote self-sufficiency and enforcea desire to work and earn a living wage. During a recession where theunemployment rate has been as high as 10%, earning a living wage has been achallenging undertaking for many poor families.
During this recession, which only parallels the Great Depression,it seems worth noting that politicians using rhetoric instead of research toaddress public policy would be better served by remembering our history insteadof waging war against the poor.
BeverlyIsom
Blogging While Blue