Friday, December 07, 2007

Residents Facing Poverty Seek Community Response

from The Times Union

Tim Robertson
Staff Writer

Editor's Note: This is the third of a three-part series on poverty in Kosciusko County. The series looks at three local events aimed at raising awareness and facilitating responses to poverty in our area.

The day starts for Warsaw residents Jamie Caudill and Brandy Holle in much the same way as it starts for many of their neighbors across the county.

Caudill, 29, lives with her children, ages 2 and 10, and her boyfriend in a one-room efficiency apartment. She does not own a car, and must arrange a ride or walk more than five miles to her job at a local nursing home.

Holle, 27, lives with her 9-year-old son and her disabled fiance in a house she bought three years ago. But Holle's house has been foreclosed upon and she and her family must be out soon.

"In two months, I don't know if I'm going to have any place to live," she said.

Caudill and Holle are examples of a growing group in Kosciusko County, the working poor. Both women are involved in a local program aimed at helping them pull themselves and their families out of poverty. Every Monday, the women attend a 2-1/2-hour class called "Getting Ahead in a Just Getting By World," offered by local service agency Combined Community Services. They said, in the class they're learning to set personal goals and take steps to move their families past the daily cycle of survival and crisis negotiation and into a more secure environment.

But, Caudill and Holle said they're also learning that for effective, widespread change in the county's poverty situation, it takes the response and action of the entire community.

Brenda Rigdon, Kosciusko County Community Foundation development director, agrees. On Jan. 24, the KCCF will sponsor a workshop with Dr. Ruby Payne, a leading U.S. expert on the mindsets of poverty, middle class and wealth. Rigdon said the aim of the workshop is to act as a catalyst for action against poverty in the county.

Caudill said she has always lived in poverty. When she was 17, Caudill got pregnant and dropped out of high school. Five years later, she had another child. She said she got by working what jobs she could find and receiving public assistance for groceries and childcare items until 2005. That year, Caudill's 5-year-old son died and that's when she said she hit rock bottom.

"I went straight down hill," Caudill said. "I sat on my couch and I didn't care about anything else. The bills weren't paid and I didn't care that the bills weren't paid."

Holle also had a child when she was 17. Through a CCS program called Project Independence, Holle was able to complete a college degree in the field of health care. Holle said things were tough when she was studying.

"I was making about $3,000 a month. I was on food stamps and Medicaid, and I lived in an apartment with cockroaches," Holle said. "I couldn't afford diapers for my son."

Holle said things got better for her after she graduated. She found a job, though not in her field of study, and was able to buy a house and a reliable car.

Then disaster struck. Holle lost her job and, in the same month, suffered some serious health problems.

"I went from making about $40,000 a year down to about $12,000," she said. "I lost my home and now I'm trying to file for bankruptcy."

Philip DeVol is a consultant and trainer with Payne's organization aha! Process Inc. DeVol said Caudill's and Holle's stories demonstrate some of the main causes of poverty and barriers to leaving poverty.

"There are a lot of people that are playing by the rules, working hard and something comes along and blows up their day," DeVol said. "It's a very complex kind of picture."

DeVol said personal choices and individual situations play a role in most situations in which people lose their self-sufficiency. Often, he said, decisions are made within the context of sets of hidden class rules which exist within poverty, middle class and wealth. Those working to get out of poverty are often just one disaster or one illness from losing their self-sufficiency.

DeVol said individual choices and circumstances are not the only factors affecting those in poverty.

"It's not as simple as get sober, get a job, be more punctual, make better decisions," he said.

Many of the major factors, DeVol said, are found on the community level.

"American towns and cities are having a difficult time offering some very simple basics," DeVol said.

He said communities need to take a close look at how readily available well-paying jobs, good education opportunities, health care and fair credit are locally.

For example, DeVol said, local employers should know what it takes to provide basic, secure survival for a family in this county. According to a nationwide county-by-county survey by Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Wider Opportunities For Women, in 2005 in Kosciusko County, an adult with an infant and a preschooler needs to make $13.38 per hour to be self sufficient. A single adult with an infant, a preschooler and a school age child needs to make $18.39 per hour to make ends meet.

DeVol said Payne's workshop will lay some of the groundwork for professionals from the health care, education, business and local government sectors to understand the hidden rules of living in poverty, middle class and wealth so they can take more effective action to help stabilize the local environment for those in poverty.

DeVol said communication is an important starting point.

"If we all agree on what poverty is like in Kosciusko County, if we share a common understanding of what poverty is, we'll be more effective when we come together to talk about what to do about it," he said.

DeVol said, because poverty isn't simply a matter of lacking financial resources, but a lack of spiritual, physical, emotional resources and support systems, all sectors of the community play a role in alleviating its affects.

"That's what I think the community's job is," DeVol said. "It's not just, 'Good luck pal, getting yourself out of poverty.' It's helping create this stable environment for people to live in."

According to DeVol, the participation of those living in poverty is key to a successful response.

"Often we end up doing our planning for helping people in poverty without any of them in the room," he said. "If we sit at the planning table with everybody, that is so much more useful than just telling people what to do."

When Caudill and Holle finish their 16-week course with CCS, they'll receive $100 in cash and free membership to the local YMCA. They said those are great rewards, but they feel the even bigger rewards will be tools they can use to bring their families closer to self-sufficiency.

Caudill wants to find a home for her children that will not be as crowded and stress-inducing.

Holle wants to find a place for her family to live and begin working to re-establish good credit.

Both women said with red tape involved in receiving public assistance and the common misconception that people in poverty are lazy or drug addicts, they know they're facing an uphill battle. But they're optimistic that things can change for people in need in this county.

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