News and Tribune

February 6, 2013

ANDERSON: A brief history of poverty and homelessness

Local columnist

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of guest columns from Barbara Anderson on poverty and homelessness in the area.

Poverty is not a crime in America, it is our shame. We have chosen to turn our heads to the poverty in this country by not challenging those who make decisions about programming for the poor.

When examining how we got to the point of having an average of 80 people a night living in our Williams Emergency Shelter — or in the streets — we have to first understand how it happened to be in our community at all. Historically, there has been programming. Albeit not always the kind of programming we preferred, it was at least an attempt to make sure people were fed, clothed and sheltered.

That aid took many forms over the years. Work houses or poor homes (county homes) existed in all 92 counties. Ours was located on Ind. 62 and New Albany’s was located on Grant Line Road. Ironically, New Albany’s continued to house disadvantaged youth and now houses the National Guard. 

For many states at the turn of the century, we had township trustees. They were charged with being the overseers of the poor, and that particular system still exists in Indiana, Illinois and Texas. Indiana’s system is still the one that has the most direct approach to the poor.

In 1964, there was declared a “War on Poverty.” It was the Kennedy/Johnson answer to eradicating poverty in this country. It embodied every aspect of social programming needed to educate, retrain and employ the poorest of the poor. 

The birth of the VISTA program — Volunteers in Service to America — happened, which was somewhat akin to the Peace Corps on a domestic level. It produced many students and young professionals to help rebuild the inner city and provide service to poor and more rural states.

Clark and Floyd counties were no exceptions. There was the birth of the Community Mental Health Center, the Community Action programs, Head Start programs, health department programs, vocational rehabilitation programs — and many others sprang forward. In essence, the birth of nonprofit organizations began during this period. 

By 1985 however, people were singing the blues. Despite the lowered numbers of those living in poverty and the increase in the middle class, despite stronger education levels, and in spite of the growing strain on the domestic budget, the Graham Rudman Act was born. 

I remember it well. I had worked at the Community Action Agency for five years and was a public service employee making $9 an hour, I had started in the CETA funded program at $3.85 per hour only five years earlier and it had led to full-time employment. It was also one of the training programs that would be revised and eventually eliminated. 

As the bill read, the domestic budget had to be balanced and had to be “pulled” into a balanced condition. That meant automatic cuts up to 75 percent of their original budgetary amount. The act eliminated funding for the Community Services Administration and in Indiana that meant 92 Community Action agencies had to be trimmed down to 26 regional agencies. It was a very difficult adjustment for the organizations serving the poor and an even harder one for the poor. 

HUD still has not reached the levels of the Section 8 Rental Assistance Program of 1983. 

The trickle-down theory of the 1980s did not reduce taxes. We all know that. They did redefine the priorities. We began to resent the poor, to fear them, and to criminalize them. Poor was no longer a condition — it was a crime. The federal government passed the responsibility to the states, the states to the local communities, and many now try to pass it on to the churches. 

No money, just a heavy responsibility. 

Many of the nonprofits affected stood up to the plate, but the housing crisis created by the cuts could not be absorbed into the local community. Public housing began to fall into disrepair, Section 8 rental assistance was frozen and the support systems set up were eliminated or greatly diminished. 

The counties closed county homes because they couldn’t afford the cost of running them. Some agencies were fortunate enough (like Community Mental Health Centers) to be written into legislation on a federal, state and local level. Others were not so fortunate. 

In 1969, Floyd County was No. 28 in ranking for the poor and Clark was No. 24. the good news is that Floyd is now No. 15, and Clark is No. 22. 

The disparity occurred when the county seat of Clark County, Jeffersonville, became larger than New Albany for the first time in its history. Today, Clark County has a poverty ranking of 11.9 percent for adults and 40 percent of our children receiving free or reduced lunch. Floyd County reduced to 11.4 percent with 42 percent of their children receiving free or reduced lunch.

While our numbers have gone down, our middle class has disappeared. That is the reality of the picture. It takes $12.57 per hour to live adequately in this community. Minimum wage is $7.25, and in service-industry jobs, little more than that is paid. More than two-thirds of those we served at the shelter last year had some employment but could not afford a home to live in, could not afford health care for their children and do not know when they will be able to. 

So, how we got here is complicated. That we are here is not. The definition for homelessness has been debated for 20 years, but it is simple —those without a home. 

People with resources don’t have to live in shelters, people with access to education do no need publicly funded programs and people with food are not hungry. But we have all of these in our community. 

Hope Inc., feeds thousands a year as does the Center for Lay Ministries, the food kitchens, churches and scattered pantries. And probably the biggest feeder of our hungry daily is our school system. 

The solutions aren’t easy but we as a community of people need to seek them. Poor people will “always be among us.” I do believe that, but I also believe what we do about it is how we will someday be judged ourselves.

— Barbara Anderson is executive director of Haven House Services Inc.