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D.C.'s Children: Poverty in Our Nation's Capital
By Carol Ann Morrow
In Washington, D.C., the Catholic Campaign for Human Development funds projects that empower children—and their parents—to move out of poverty.

Q U I C K S C A N

Christ Child Visits Southeast
How Does Your Garden Grow?
Bicycles Built for Many
Neighborhood School—for Adults
No Fit Place To Lay Their Heads
Teens Speak to Power
CCHD: Gift of Hope in Every Season
Virtual Visits to D.C. Projects

Photo by Ken Touchton

Children in these United States aren’t counted among its wage earners. That’s a parent’s job.

In Washington, D.C., however, 31 percent of children are imperiled by parental poverty. This is the highest rate among the states of the Union, though it may be unfair to lump the District (more like an urban city) with the 50 states.

Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), headquartered in Washington, D.C., but active throughout the United States, aims to end the cycle that perpetuates poverty. CCHD’s mandate is to empower poor people themselves. Sometimes those people are grown; sometimes they aren’t.

St. Anthony Messenger checked out quite a few CCHD projects in Washington, D.C., last summer. The big question: How are children being helped? Answers unfolded in projects small and large, simple and dramatic. Here’s how dreams underwritten by CCHD and rooted in the savvy of grassroots activists play out in the urban environment where our national leaders stand watch over the economy.

Christ Child Visits Southeast

Washington, D.C.’s Ward Eight is across the Anacostia River, where tourists seldom travel. Last June, a festive crowd collected at St. Thomas More Church in Washington Highlands. Representatives of the Christ Child Society, the Knights of Columbus and Victory Youth Centers joined Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and popular Ward Eight Councilwoman Sandra Allen to break ground for a youth center. A host of Southeast residents joined the celebration.

The crowd assembled at a site where the body of itinerant Deborah Iracks, 43, had been abandoned in February 2001. Would her unsolved murder become one more statistic in a neighborhood with the highest rate of violent crime in Washington, D.C.?

On his “strolls” through the Highlands, Father Charles Pope prayed for better. Mary Ford Toomer, a 21-year member of St. Thomas More parish, told Father Pope, her pastor, “You shouldn’t be walking out here,” though she herself made the 10-minute dash to church. “I felt like my sons were in prison,” she says, because she couldn’t let them out of her sight.

OV Johnson, military veteran, experienced CYO football coach and longtime Highlands resident, adds to the not-so-pretty picture. “In the ’60s, there were two or three thugs. By the late ’80s, crack cocaine meant there wasn’t no place safe. You were lucky to keep drugs off your own corner.”

Luck has changed. Father Pope names that change “resurrection.” Where blight prevailed, a Victory Youth Center will rise.

To be named the Mary Virginia Merrick Youth Recreation Center, the $4 million project required extensive collaboration in vision and funding. The Christ Child Society donated $1 million and its founder’s name. The D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development awarded a $2 million community development block grant. The Washington Interfaith Network (WIN), which unites 54 congregations, had led the fight to establish a $100 million Neighborhood Investment Fund in D.C.

CCHD played a significant part, awarding WIN its $50,000 start-up grant in 1996. CCHD looks for places where seed money will reap a harvest. The Merrick Youth Recreation Center is part of that harvest.

OV predicts the center will draw positive mentors back to Southeast. He explains, “Sports teaches self-respect, respect for others, friendship and communications. Sports leads you to examine your limitations and to take pride in your community. The average person, coached in the fundamentals, gets respect.” But drugs became that measure of respect, OV says, when crime cleared Southeast streets of law-abiding people.

To Father Pope, the center—next door to his church and on property donated by the archdiocese—is a miracle. “A parish shouldn’t be an island, but an oasis,” he says. Now that oasis effectively embraces children.

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Washington, D.C.’s Ward Eight has 70,000 residents but not a single supermarket. Without any, inner-city residents pay up to 22 percent more for basic food items.

On the grounds of St. Elizabeth’s, a former Civil War hospital and now neglected government property, Community Harvest has opened a farm to grow fresh produce for this underserved area.

It’s an act of faith to imagine that Urban Oasis exists beyond the timeworn, padlocked gatehouse to the derelict 336 acres. A winding path past dilapidated greenhouses leads at last to a tiny farm on the site’s west campus. Tosha Link, executive director of Community Harvest, and Danielle Rolli, farm manager, welcome guests.

Urban Oasis, explains Tosha, is one part of Community Harvest’s mission to create a “locally operating and sustainable food source.” A former Peace Corps volunteer in Ghana, Africa, Tosha is an experienced agricultural entrepreneur. That’s what the situation calls for.

On this sunny June morning, Urban Oasis welcomes the K-Grade One class from Clara Mohammad School. One small student farmer describes his walk up the “big hill” to visit the class’s two garden beds. He’s excited and proud.

Danielle welcomes the class for a review of last week’s work planting onions, tomatoes and sunflower seeds. Her new lesson will be on flowering plants. Each visit includes an experience; today’s will be making mint tea.

“What does this smell like?” Danielle asks her young charges as she bruises spearmint leaves from the class’s garden plot. “Tic Tacs!” exclaims a kindergartner.

When Tic Tacs are more familiar than mint leaves, a bigger question looms. Where are the fresh greens of any kind? Not in so-called convenience or liquor stores where residents buy staples. The predictable results include bigger food bills and bigger health problems, such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

One solution? Local gardens, lessons in growing and using fresh foods, and “raising up future generations of activists,” says Danielle, as she gathers her small charges for a class that captivates kids and grown-ups alike.

Community Harvest has received two CCHD grants from the archdiocesan fund. One fourth of all money from the annual parish collection, usually held the Sunday before Thanksgiving, remains in each diocese to be awarded to local applicants.

Christian Wainwright, CCHD director in the Washington Archdiocese (which includes five Maryland counties), explains, “Depending on people’s generosity, we get $50,000-$60,000 to distribute locally each year. This money gives us a chance to help some of the many small community organizations that are doing great work to help people lift themselves out of poverty.”

Changing structures in ways that empower people is key to CCHD’s mission. Community Harvest is using its grant money to accomplish that. They’ve got small farmers supplying a seasonal market and a farm stand in Ward Eight (also five other markets and one farm stand in other underserved areas). Urban Oasis helps supply those venues with pesticide-free broccoli, cantaloupes, greens, okra, onions, snap peas, squash, tomatoes and turnips. Unfortunately, groundhogs ate all the watermelons!

Bicycles Built for Many

Shaw EcoVillage may sound like the Ward Two equivalent of Ward Eight’s Urban Oasis. This project certainly shares a common mission to reach out to youth and contribute to a sustainable environment. Part of its less obvious route is through—and on—bicycles.

Shaw is a D.C. neighborhood still recovering from the riots that followed Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. “Shameless Shaw” became its moniker, says Elizabeth Leigh, founding member and vice president of the Shaw EcoVillage Project board of directors. She describes the woes of abandoned buildings and other rundown properties with absentee landlords. Her degree in urban planning made her confident that Shaw could be revitalized—but how?

At community visioning meetings in 1996 and 1997, Shaw residents voiced their concerns, which clustered in six areas: environment, community, health, development, public space and transportation. Bicycles seemed an inspired way to connect economics, environment and youth.

Jimmy Tally, 20, is senior mechanic at Chain Reaction, the youth bike shop. Working at the shop “helped me settle,” he says, as he works to repair a wheel. Jimmy’s from New York, but he’s convinced there’s a “reason why I’m here.”

Tichanta Whipple, 10, is one reason. She stops at Chain Reaction because a “nail popped out” of her bike. Jimmy fixes her spoke (attached with a nail, in a 10-year-old’s view) and sends her off smiling. No charge. Revenue from more sophisticated bike service and sales supports EcoVillage youth programs such as bike safety and critical-thinking skills.

David Moskovitz, Chain Reaction’s operations manager, welcomes customers. “I like to reduce the barriers that keep people from riding bikes,” he says. David is a road racer, bicycle commuter and cycling tourist himself.

“In this neighborhood, people have to ride bikes. It’s the least expensive and most convenient way to get places,” David says. He tallies the pluses: Cyclists need no license. Bikes need no gas. Bike commuters need no money for public transportation. No taxes are levied on bicycles.

David doesn’t brag on the boon to the environment. Perhaps that’s because Mike Hill, executive director of Shaw EcoVillage, is steering his visitors toward another EcoVillage project, a community garden. He explains, “Low-income kids have no green space of their own. They need public space.” Mike says, “Young people are the biggest consumers of public ground—parks, schools and streets.”

The EcoDesign Corps has worked with 14- to 18-year-olds to reclaim a vacant lot. Teens from Shaw work two afternoons a week and two Saturdays a month to grow fruits and vegetables in a garden they’ve designed and created. Early in the season, they’re struggling to create raised beds above old asphalt. A harvest of experience seems guaranteed, whatever else comes up.

The organization that birthed Eco-Village—which led to the bike shop and garden—is Manna Community Development Corporation. Now 20 years in operation, Manna learned that Shaw residents loved their renovated homes, but lamented the scene beyond their door. The EcoVillage spin-off addresses these concerns, helping to make Shaw a safe and healthy place for both children and their parents.

Neighborhood School—for Adults

Parents need jobs. Without a paycheck, they may scrape by, but they won’t thrive. Neither will their children. In Ward Two’s Shaw, 25 percent of children live in poverty. In Southeast (Ward Eight), that number nearly doubles.

Jobs with adequate pay require education. More than 30 percent of adults in Southeast have no high school diploma. LaTinique Cooper, 23, doesn’t want to be counted among them. “I had Jaimon, my son, at 20,” she explains. “Now I’m ready to be an example for him.”

Why didn’t LaTinique graduate? “By sixth grade, I didn’t like school anymore. Teachers kept passing me, though, to the ninth grade.” Ballou High School was a violent place. The father of her son (10 years older) seemed a refuge and protector. He also kept her in the house.

“He was angry about me coming back to school,” LaTinique says, so he’s out of the picture. “I didn’t know how I was going to get by but, if I give up, Jaimon will do the same things I did and the cycle will continue.”

Early last June, she had crossed every hurdle but math to gain her General Equivalency Diploma (GED). By June’s end, LaTinique had not only conquered math, but had also enrolled in Living Wages’ retail sales and service training program.

Bob Crittenden and Sister Betsy Hartson, R.S.C.J. (Society of the Sacred Heart), used to work with homeless services for Catholic Charities in Washington, D.C. They heard plenty of stories like LaTinique’s.

Bob and Sister Betsy concluded that education was the way out—and up. They and two other former Catholic Charities staff founded Living Wages in 1997. A veteran educator who switched careers to “do” social-justice work, Sister Betsy found that, once again, she “ended up in education, the equalizer.”

Living Wages approaches education as a means to a highly desirable end: empowerment. Their newsletter describes “people gaining the knowledge and skills they need to become the parents, workers and citizens they aspire to be.”

But a GED isn’t the only way to finish school. Living Wages also offers an External Diploma Program (EDP), which awards a diploma from a high school when 65 practical skills or competencies have been demonstrated.

Living Wages has two locations in Southeast: the former St. Thomas More Rectory (Washington Highlands) and St. Teresa of Avila Community Center (Anacostia). The center also offers individualized tutoring, group training tailored to specific job categories, computer classes and help with the job hunt.

Bob and Sister Betsy talk about the “multiplier effect” of Living Wages. Staff and volunteers (some graduates of the program) help adults who can help children who will become adults—adults who will graduate and command a decent salary. The founders of Living Wages recognize the causal connection between uneducated parents and poor children. They’ve established two safe houses where that cycle can be halted.

Over 400 adults have been enrolled. Around 200 advanced two grades, 19 passed the GED test and 31 received an external diploma. At least 15 have enrolled in college. CCHD’s investment has paid off, with dividends still to come.

No Fit Place to Lay Their Heads

Does a decent place to live come before or after a decent education? The question poses a dilemma no parent wants to face.

Carecen (Central American Resource Center) assists residents in Wards One to Five with citizenship, legal and housing issues. To understand how Carecen’s efforts affect children, St. Anthony Messenger visited three apartment buildings in Columbia Heights (Ward One): one substandard, one renovated and one on the cusp of change.

Miriam Menbreno has no children living in her one-bedroom apartment, though small children play outside the 16-unit building. Miriam pays $600 a month (now being held in escrow during negotiations for vital improvements by the landlord) for an apartment with a hole in the bathroom ceiling and wall large enough to lower a tub vertically from the floor above. She’s hoping nobody tries.

Lucille and Hans Coutard once lived in similar surroundings, but the apartment they now call home is bright, clean and free of pests and lead-based paint. Lucille, current president of the Parkfair Apartments Tenant Association, says the 31-unit building is practically a United Nations outpost: Latino, Vietnamese, African-American, Ethiopian and Russian. The building has a mix of efficiencies, two-bedroom and three-bedroom apartments.

Lucille’s children are grown now. She says they left before “it got really bad.” Bad included a landlord who said the rent included utilities, but failed to pay the bills. The building also sustained a lot of unrepaired water damage.

Carecen’s housing and community development program helped Lucille and her tenant neighbors protect their rights, and identify and contact the landlord. (The owner had died, the property had been allowed to deteriorate, then sold “as is.”) Carecen staff and the tenants worked with Victory Housing to negotiate a contract that includes the tenants as partners.

Victory Housing, the nonprofit housing development arm of the Archdiocese of Washington, believes that housing should be affordable and of high quality. Their Web site boasts an exterior photo of the Coutards’ residence.

A final stop in Columbia Heights was to a rundown building about to be put on the market. (Under D.C. law, tenants have first right to buy the building in which they live. Agencies such as Victory Housing work to support tenant ownership, which stabilizes a neighborhood.)

The building on Sherman Road has 16 units, with four efficiencies and 12 one-bedroom apartments, which apparently house some families with children. According to one spunky resident, who pays $200 a month for her efficiency, the whole building is worth about $200.

Carecen has already worked to organize 72 tenant associations. Carecen’s Raul Rodriguez sees this moment as a golden opportunity for the tenants to gain control of their housing—and their future. They are fearful, doubtful and difficult to convince.

Raul, together with Rafael Alfaro, Carecen tenant organizer, must gather the residents in a dark hallway—standing room only. Out of eight Latino and eight African-American households, only nine adults, three infants and one child are present.

The clock is ticking. If developers buy the building, infant twins Edith and Edwin may not have a roof over their heads much longer.

Carecen made Lucille Coutard into a housing-rights activist. Miriam Menbreno is learning. Carecen has done groundwork for Sherman Road’s tenants as well. Who will come forward? (At press time, the legal status of some tenants had been challenged, which confirmed their greatest fears.)

Teens Speak to Power

Had these Columbia Heights tenants had the benefit of Covenant House’s Youth Congress when they were growing up, they would not be so hesitant to claim their rights.

Vincent Gray, executive director of Covenant House Washington, knows this. He requested a CCHD grant to prepare at-risk youth to be responsible citizens through education, leadership development and advocacy training. It works.

Keya Barnes, 19, and Lora Hymes, 20, were homeless high-school dropouts. Nicole Lee, who heads the Youth Congress, has helped turn Keya and Lora (plus hundreds more) into confident, articulate and informed citizens. Lora says, “I’m in the can-do spirit.” Keya, who has testified at public hearings on juvenile justice, says, “I have a voice that needs to be heard.”

Just a year ago, Keya lived in a crisis shelter. Youth Congress has helped her become an articulate citizen. Through Covenant House, she has gained woodworking skills through its artisans program. With technical training and new advocacy skills, Keya wants to work her way through college, majoring in political science.

Lora dropped out of Anacostia High School, discouraged by a sick mother, a school where she didn’t think she counted and the loss of a home. Through the Covenant House Crisis Center, Lora participated in Youth Congress. She says, “I count. I testified at the D.C. budget hearings. They were going to cut the budget for Covenant House,” she adds incredulously. “They didn’t. I’m going to keep voting.” And learning. And creating a future.

Catholic Campaign for Human Development—and U.S. Catholics who fund its grants through their financial gifts—helped make that future possible. It’s an investment inspired by faith.

Catholic Campaign for Human Development takes the pulse of the nation this month—the poverty pulse, that is. CCHD will announce the numbers in January. This marks the fifth year they’ve been surveying the national scene.

When Father Robert J. Vitillo, executive director of Catholic Campaign for Human Development, announced 2004’s Poverty Pulse, he said, “The vast majority of Americans are not even close in their estimates of the total number of poor people living in this country.” Most estimated—at the most—two million, while the actual number is nearly 35 million. The 2004 report cites the concerns of many low-income families about the safety, well-being and future of their children.

As he visited the six projects highlighted here, Father Bob saw how CCHD funds are invested in the very place he calls home.

That gives him hope, despite the daunting numbers. He says: “When I visit the empowered poor and low-income people whose projects have been supported by CCHD, they show me the physical changes in their neighborhoods and in their housing situations. They breathe sighs of relief that their children are no longer in danger of drug dealers outside their schools. They proudly share their experiences in starting their own businesses or in advocating for more just laws in their communities and even on state and national levels.”

The annual CCHD collection is taken in many parishes the weekend before Thanksgiving. Father Bob is inspired that people can be so generous at that time. He says, “Thanksgiving means Americans are counting their blessings,” but he also knows “they are counting their pennies (and dollars) in anticipation of the many Christmas gifts they must buy. Yet the spirit of Christmas is shared with poor and low-income people in the United States by the support of Catholics for the CCHD collection.”

In late August, the U.S. government reported that the number of poor persons has increased for the third straight year, with children faring worst of all. The total figure represents an increase of 1.3 million people. Half of those are children.

Despite this disheartening news, Father Bob says, “One cannot help receiving hope when people are successfully building community. We Catholics can rejoice in the fact that our support for CCHD makes all this possible.”

 

www.povertyusa.org
The Catholic Campaign for Human Development
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
3211 Fourth St., NE
Washington, D.C. 20017-1194

www.victoryyouthcenters.com;also www.charityadvantage.com/christchilddc

www.communityharvestdc.org

www.ShawEcoVillage.com; also www.mannadc.org

www.livingwages.org

www.carecendc.org; also www.victoryhousing.org

www.covenanthousedc.org

 

Carol Ann Morrow is an assistant editor of this publication and managing producer of audiobooks for St. Anthony Messenger Press.


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