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HUSOCK: Reinventing public housing
Atlanta’s Renee Glover tears down projects, builds up success stories
Question of the Day
It is easy to despair over the persistence of black poverty. The social problem that just won’t go away has resisted even the election of our first black president. The depth and complexity of its causes leads, understandably, to indifference born of frustration. That makes what’s going on under the aegis of the Atlanta Housing Authority (AHA) and its reformist leader, Renee Glover, so unusual - and so hopeful. Not only has Ms. Glover demolished virtually all of the city’s poverty- and crime-ridden public-housing projects, but she also has initiated large-scale individual interventions in the lives of the black poor that hold the promise of actually reducing the ranks of the underclass. The immodest but appropriate name for her work: “human transformation.”
The context is this. Since taking over the AHA in 1994, Ms. Glover has transformed the authority, whose nearly 50,000 tenants are more than 98 percent black. To remain a public-housing tenant - either in a new mixed-income development or in a private apartment paid for by a housing voucher - one must agree to a work requirement. It is in helping tenants fulfill that requirement that the story of human transformation has unfolded.
The troops in this war on dependency are employees of the Integral Youth and Family Project, a for-profit subsidiary of the leading private developer of complexes to replace Atlanta’s projects. The employees of this sort of Peace Corps for the underclass are called “family support coordinators” (FSCs) and they are virtually all blacks in their 20s and early 30s. Some have made the journey out of public housing themselves. Kenya Tyson went from Atlanta’s Harris Homes to Morehouse College and counsels families who lived in the now-demolished Harris. Teaera Raines was raised by her grandparents in Macon, Ga., after her parents succumbed to drug abuse; she went on to get a master’s degree in management from Troy University.
One senses in the group the same spirit of pragmatic idealism that characterizes Teach for America and the KIPP Schools: the belief that people whom others have written off can be reached. Every day, the FSCs fan out in their own cars to visit three or four households relocated from the demolished projects. They give their cell-phone numbers to their “clients” and understand themselves to be on call at all times - including when the call concerns an angry boyfriend, domestic violence or where to find shelter with the kids at midnight.
The FSCs are unblinking in describing the situations they see. There are horror stories, such as that of the 7-year-old who was sexually abused on a regular basis by his mother’s live-in boyfriend, threatened suicide and sprayed the household’s food with Raid in an effort to kill his family. More common are the frustratingly casual attitudes the FSCs encounter. Many households, the group tells me, have never paid bills for themselves: Utilities came with public housing, food stamps helped with groceries and everything else was paid for in cash. Not surprisingly, the priority was to keep receiving benefits and, if possible, increase them. That meant keeping live-in boyfriends - even if one was the father of a child in the household - off the lease lest the man’s income lead to a rent increase. It also meant suggesting to school authorities that a child might have a learning disability - such a designation could bestow nearly $300 a month in Supplemental Security Income (SSI) on the household. (School officials reportedly are often eager to comply because excluding hard-to-teach students could boost schoolwide test results.)
Hope Boldon, executive director of the Integral Youth and Family Project, says it was common for four generations of female-headed households to live this way in the projects, combining housing, Medicaid, SSI and food stamps to “get over.” That originally was a church expression for overcoming obstacles, one derived from the biblical account of crossing the river Jordan and immortalized in the old Mahalia Jackson hymn that says: “You know my soul look back in wonder / How did I make it over?” In its new, cynical usage, the phrase has become synonymous with successful hustles.
But as adept as those in the public-housing world have grown at maximizing government benefits, they’re usually utterly unprepared to make their own way in life. As Ms. Raines puts it, “They basically say to us, ‘You’re trying to tell me to live a life I don’t know anything about.’ “
Take a woman we’ll call Darlene - a single mother of two teenage boys whom Pamela Elder, another FSC, began to visit six months before tenants left the soon-to-be-demolished Bankhead Courts. Darlene, a longtime employee of the Checkers fast-food chain, had been fired recently because of attitude problems. She wasn’t an irresponsible mother; she insisted that her boys stay inside their apartment to avoid gang life. But neither was she ambitious for them. Asked what future she envisioned for the boys, Darlene said that they would “work at McDonald’s or someplace like that” and then added, tellingly, “That’s what we do.”
Two years after Ms. Elder first visited Darlene, that defeatism has vanished. Once she moved from public housing into a subsidized private apartment - and faced the requirement to work - Darlene did, indeed, start working again. In fact, she has a far better job than she ever had before: cleaning airplanes at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. (“I’d never even been on an airplane before,” Darlene told Ms. Elder.) With her own circumstances and living situation improved, she has encouraged her sons, whom Ms. Elder describes as “smart” and “athletic,” to stay in school, and the elder of the two has been nominated for a selective Atlanta program for public school students displaying leadership qualities and academic promise.
Most instructive about Darlene’s story are the many steps over many months that helped it come to pass. Ms. Elder insisted that Darlene attend a job fair, then helped her prepare for it by taking her to a local discount store, Value Village, to buy an outfit to wear because Darlene had always worn either sweatpants or her fast-food uniform. Darlene had to give up her marijuana habit to pass her new employer’s drug test and get the airport security badge that she now sports with pride. Ms. Elder taught her how to apply makeup and lip gloss, how to prepare for a job interview and how to put together a resume. Darlene, like all the clients, had to write down a “family wealth plan” - a list of goals (educational, employment, family development, financial, health and personal development) and “steps needed to achieve goals.”
Such questions about goals and plans - which get at the essence of how to escape the underclass - didn’t fall on immediately receptive ears. Urged to think about her future, Darlene erupted, “All that’s easy for you to say - you’re white!” The outburst stunned Ms. Elder, who not only is darker-skinned than her client but was a teenage mother in Atlanta before earning a counseling degree from Georgia State. “Just because I’m married and drive a Honda Civic, now I’m white,” she says. Her colleagues join her bemused laughter.
I ask them whether, from the perspective of the projects, Barack and Michelle Obama are white. “Definitely,” one says. “Success is white,” says another, “except for athletes and rap stars.” The FSCs’ challenge is to make clear that in America, success isn’t simply the result of privilege. Ms. Raines uses herself as an example: She tells her clients that “they can achieve, just as I did.”
The stories don’t always have happy endings, of course. Kenya Tyson describes one that “will stick with me for the rest of my life” involving a mother and her six children, formerly of the Hollywood Homes project. State officials took the children away from their mother because of her drug abuse. Once the household was reunited, the father of the youngest four raped one of the older two, an act that the mother denies, despite the daughter’s pregnancy. The rape victim is now “making suicidal comments,” says Ms. Tyson. “I am currently seeking an in-home certified and clinical counseling agency for the family to deal with these issues. I am also working diligently trying to get the daughter enrolled into an adult literacy class because she is 18 and can’t read and write.”
The cost of the Integral Youth and Family Project is substantial. From 2002 to 2009, the AHA has paid it $26.7 million to work with 14,281 people. But that’s a substantial percentage of metropolitan Atlanta’s 81,000 black poor, meaning that the program has the potential not only to help individuals but to change broader social norms.
The statistical results are impressive, although it’s impossible to determine which part of Ms. Glover’s plan - the work requirement or the counseling - deserves more credit. The most recent figures show that 62 percent of AHA-supported household heads in Atlanta are employed. Before the recession, the figure had reached 70 percent. When Ms. Glover took over, it stood at 18.5 percent. This is what reducing black poverty actually looks like - turning the underclass into the working class. From there, middle-class status and higher education can follow. Ms. Glover, herself the daughter of Jim Crow-era northern Florida, thinks the combination of black self-help and government effort she is providing is welcome. As she puts it, “On so many occasions, people have said, ‘Thank you for believing in us.’ We were into a completely different planning process because we were not planning for poor people who were incapable, who could not be responsible. We were in the process of planning for God’s children.”
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
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