Voices: People in Poverty

A six-piece series on living poor in Omaha

Stories produced by Robyn Wisch and Angel Martin, KVNO News LISTEN HERE Single Mother Students at Brothers and Sisters Learning Center know Renisha Cooper as Ms. Ree-Ree. The single mother of two has been working at the child care center in North Omaha for the past four years. Last fall, she found out she had a tumor behind her eye, and is now partially blind. Cooper struggles to pay her bills — including medical costs and student loans — with very little financial assistance from the father of her children. She now receives government aid to meet her housing and childcare needs. “I try to get as much help as I can,” she says. “I don’t like to say I can do it all by myself, because I know I can’t. I’m not ashamed, because I need that help right now. I’ll get off of it one day.” The number of children living in poverty in Nebraska jumped 30 percent between 2000 and 2008, according to a report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The report found the number of single-parent homes has jumped 8 percent over the last decade. Cooper says she doesn't know how she'd manage without the welfare support. “If I wasn’t on this program I don’t know where me and my kids would be living,” she says. “I face challenges everyday with my sickness.” Cooper would like to eventually own her own home, and has a plan to become self-sufficient in four to five years. Teresa Hunter, executive director for Family Housing Advisory Services, thinks that goal is achievable. Hunter says if Cooper is serious about homeownership, there are several programs that could help her do it by allowing her to become financially independent. “It doesn’t have to be that 'someone else can have a house and I can’t,'” she says. “It comes from within. It comes from the desire.” But Nebraska Appleseed Executive Director Becky Gould says getting off all government assistance is a difficult process. She says a family of three, like Cooper’s, would need to make about $36,620 annually to be self-sufficient. That amount, based on a national average, only meets basic family needs, and includes no extras for dining out, savings or college funds. At $9 an hour, Cooper would almost need to double her wage to meet that goal. “The more we can do to create that sort of seamless path out of poverty into stability, the better it is for families and, actually, the better it is for the state as a whole,” Gould says. “We’ll be more effectively using our taxpayer dollars, because we won’t have people sliding back down into more expensive areas of public assistance.” Cooper says she’s committed to do what it takes to make sure her two kids have a better life than she did. Just two months after her first baby was born, she started school and eventually earned an associate's degree in pharmacy. “It was a challenge, going to school and having a newborn, being up all night and going to school four days a week, and going to work,” she says. “It was a challenge, but I did it and I know if I can do it anybody can do it.” She's now enrolled in Bellevue University, working toward a bachelor's degree in communication arts. “A lot of people want you to have that bachelor’s degree now in order to get that ‘better’ job,” she says. “And I just feel like once I finish in a year and a half, I’ll have that better job.” — Angel Martin Childcare At the new Educare center in South Omaha, light streams in from large skylight windows in the ceiling. The center is expansive, with bright soft couches lining the halls, toys neatly piled amid stacks of books and learning materials. Nothing is scattered or haphazard. Everything in the center looks purposefully designed to maximize learning. Site director Deb Winkel peeks through a window into the babies and toddlers room. “We have three teachers in all our birth-to-3 classrooms, with eight children. So the ratio is awesome,” she says. This Educare center became the second in Omaha when it opened last fall. It's one of just a few in the country. It’s funded largely by the private donations of billionaire Warren Buffett’s daughter, Susie Buffett. It provides care to low-income families through Head Start, the federal program created to ensure low-income families access to quality, accredited childcare. But Head Start isn't available to all families. Kathy Bigsby Moore, executive director of Voices for Children in Nebraska, says a family of four must earn less than $21,000 a year to qualify. But that's not enough to be able to afford childcare on their own. And, even under those income guidelines, she says, the 22 Head Start programs and 10 Early Head Start programs aren’t enough to serve the state. “Out of 93 counties, to only have a total of 32 programs demonstrates how many children don’t have a Head Start program available to them,” she says. Moore says the problem isn't just a shortage of affordable care, but a shortage of accredited care. Other than Head Start, she says, only a few accredited programs exist in the state. She says the concept of accreditation — in which daycares can achieve higher rankings by providing focused care, and standardized educational curricula — is poorly understood in Nebraska. Typical daycares only have to meet general safety standards to be licensed. “We don’t have a good way for parents to measure the quality of their childcare,” she says. “So if you are a parent working multiple jobs, who doesn’t have reliable transportation and low resources, you tend to take the childcare that’s most convenient to get to, has the most flexible hours — and the whole concept of quality is beyond your reach.” Working parents have a few options: find a daycare close by that may not be accredited or affordable; juggle work and care for their kids at home; or leave them with a family member or a neighbor. Frequently, Moore says, childcare becomes simply about keeping kids safe during the day. “When we lose the quality development in that child’s first five years, it is almost impossible to make up,” she says. “And we tend to see that child simply falling further and further behind.” — Robyn Wisch Mentoring Melvin Ramirez is 17. And he has a gift. “I felt like I had this talent where I’m not nervous and I could speak and I felt like I could touch people’s hearts by doing that,” he says. His mentor, Aprille Phillips, a trained “talent advisor” working for the Bright Futures Foundation, tells him that he has a story with which he can reach people. Phillips has helped him to see the potential in his life, and himself, he says. “She wasn’t there to just do her job,” he says. “She was there to actually show us that support. And as time passed by, it wasn’t so much as her being a teacher of mine, but actually a friend of mine who I could easily just talk to.” They met on the first day of school last year. Phillips says she knew right away Ramirez had a lot of energy. He was always up and moving around. But the first time she really got to know him came when it was time to hand out grades for the school year. “I handed out an update of his current grades, and I just watched his head go down,” she says. She told him to meet with her after class. “I think that was the first time we had a serious conversation, and I got to know a little bit about Melvin’s story, and the fact that he wanted something better, but he was discouraged, and many times before he’d just given up.” High school dropout rates in Nebraska are at their lowest in more than 10 years. But the state's success is shared disproportionately along racial and ethnic lines. Eighty-four percent of Nebraska's white students graduated in the 2005-2006 school year, compared to 47 percent of black students, and 51 percent of Latinos, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education. The state department of education’s numbers are much more favorable, showing 70 percent of black students and 75 percent of Latinos graduated between 2007-2008, compared to more than 93 percent of white students. It’s unclear which numbers are more accurate — reporting can vary widely between state and independent sources. But both show a significant disparity. And the difference is largely driven by inordinately high poverty rates among minorities. The Kaiser Foundation ranks Nebraska 40th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia in poverty among African Americans, and 32nd from the bottom for Hispanics. In contrast, the state ranks 11th for poverty among whites. Phillips and Ramirez are part of the Avenue Scholars program conducted through the Bright Futures Foundation to change those numbers. Started in 2008, the Omaha program currently serves 475 students in seven high schools. Students who perform poorly academically, but show resilience and hopefulness are matched with talent advisors who work with them throughout their high school career. Bright Futures President Ken Bird says the talent advisor is expected to be intrusive in the lives of the students they mentor. “They’re expected to know everything there is to know about them, and to be able to help them with their personal, social, academic family issues and support them in every aspect of their lives,” he says. The program targets kids living in poverty, all across Omaha. Bird says those children face multiple challenges that affect their academic careers — from instability at home to medical problems from inadequate care. He says Omaha's relatively small size makes the problems of poverty seem bigger than they might in Los Angeles, Chicago or East St. Louis. “Omaha still has a sense of community about it, and a sense of community well-being,” he says. “And I think with that we’re much more sensitive to the issues of poverty.” Ramirez grew up in L.A., in a neighborhood he says was “not the best place.” During our interview, his mother, Blanca Lopez referred to violence the family witnessed in their home. Ramirez says his mother raised him, largely, alone. “I don’t remember how old I was when my dad left, but I was really small,” he says. “I’m the youngest of three. So, basically, my mom raised us three alone. And I remember her struggling every day to take all three of us to different schools. I remember seeing her struggle just to give us three or four bucks to take to school or anything that we needed. “At the time I didn’t see that. But now, when I look back, I see that.” Ramirez hasn’t made up his mind about where he wants to go to college, but he doesn’t want to leave the area. He knows that he wants to make a career out of his talent for communicating, and to reach out to other teens who may be on the same track that he once was — getting into trouble and skipping class. “I want to make sure they don’t do the same mistakes I did, or think the way I did, especially in this program where mostly it’s minorities,” he says. “I don’t want to see minorities keeping up in this same struggle, where we … make ourselves look minor.” — Robyn Wisch Gangs and Guns “Hood 2 Hood: The Blockumentary Omaha,” is a 20-minute video uploaded to YouTube in October last year. Shot by two individuals who say they’ve traveled the country checking out gang members, the video shows a group of teenagers and young men hanging out on Omaha streets, and in front of what appears to be a North Omaha home. At one point, one of the young men in the group opens the door of a minivan reveal a backseat stacked with guns. Another segment shows a young man who says he’s 17, wearing a baseball cap, white T-shirt and a black cell phone clip attached to his sagging jeans. He’s flashing a gun. “It’s got a limit squeeze and everything,” he says. “You got to pull this in order for it to shoot, you know what I mean?” Of the 32 homicides in Omaha this year, 24 have been gang-related, according to the Omaha Police Department. Northeast Precinct Captain Kerry Neumann says the department reviewed the video, and it wasn’t surprising. According to Neumann, who moved to his position after running the department's gang unit, these are people from the neighborhood who have come together to form a street gang. “There really isn’t that much of a hierarchy or organization,” he says. The video features an abundance of guns, tucked under shirts, piled into cars. The men flash them in front of the camera, proudly displaying them alongside several thick, tightly rolled wads of cash. One of the men says his gun is legally registered. “You got yo strap, man, the police can’t do nothin’ to you,” he says. “You get pulled over, I got my strap on my waist, ain’t a f*** thing the law can do. You know what I’m saying? So if somebody get out of line, I pull my bird from under my shirt and you toasted.” Nebraska allows anyone over 21 with a state-issued ID card and no felonies or history of mental illness to carry a concealed weapon. Neumann says being a gang member or a suspected gang member may not prevent someone from owning a gun. “There are gang members who do have the constitutional right to purchase and register firearms, so there is that possibility,” he says. Hank Robinson, director of the Consortium for Crime and Justice Research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, says people in poor neighborhoods may feel the need to carry weapons for protection. “At a minimum, what poverty does is it makes people feel justifiably more vulnerable,” he says. “Well, one of the ways I can control my vulnerability is I can get a gun. That eliminates that potential set of threats from other people who are trying to do me harm.” Truancy prevention and gang intervention programs will get a slight boost in the city next year. The Omaha City Council approved $365,000 for programs targeting at-risk youth in the 2011 budget. That was well-short of the $1.5 million proposed by Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle. The funding will go toward established programs coordinated through the nonprofit philanthropic group, Building Bright Futures. Robinson says the young men in the video need something other than guns to take pride in. “If we don’t out-compete gangs for their membership, then they’ll always be there,” he says. “The only way that we can take gangs apart is by denying them membership because there are so many other opportunities and safety in the rest of community that the kids don’t need the gangs.” — Robyn Wisch Transformation Project Phillip, 40, is quiet and unassuming during an interview from the Omaha Correctional Center in August. He doesn't want to give his last name, and he’s been imprisoned on a Class 3 felony, the details of which he’d rather not say. But he's happy to talk about his family. He has seven brothers and sisters, he says. When he was young, his family owned a pickle company in Omaha. When he was a teenager, the family split the company, and his father sold his portion. He ended up working for another company, but that didn’t last. He lost his job, Phillip’s mother went back to work, and ultimately, the family ended up on food stamps. Phillip says that was back when you used the actual stamps. “It was the public embarrassment for using them,” he says. “There’s something about the feeling you get when your family’s not making it. There’s stress and depression inside the family and you can see your parents feeling that impact.” But growing up on food stamps only made Phillip try harder, he says. The youngest of his siblings, he was the first in his family to go to college. When he headed off, he was optimistic about his future. But a series of events set him back. “My mother developed Alzheimer’s. My brother committed suicide. I had gotten fired. All these things happened within a couple years, and I dived into alcohol,” to escape the depression, he says. “And the alcohol ultimately created my offense because I was under the influence when I offended.” Phillip is serving time for his second felony. The first experience in the prison system, he says, was like being in a “roach trap.” He doesn’t remember any classes or assistance being available. Although, he adds, he was so depressed at the time, he may not even have noticed. But this experience has been different. At the time of our interview, he’d been in prison a year, and was getting ready for his release in 13 days. He was enrolled in the Transformation Project, a new program developed by the University of Nebraska at Omaha and based on the life of Malcolm X — the black political leader and Omaha native, who educated himself in prison and transformed his life. “He definitely utilized his time while he was here,” Phillip says, “and I identify with that. I identified with the fact that he had all this time and he could choose what to do with it. And he chose to do good, and that was a good example.” The program includes 10 weeks of regular workshops, where participants learn to identify goals and values, and how to make the changes they seek in themselves, using the example of Malcolm X. Phillip says he’s been able to change because he’s realized the impact his actions have had on the lives of the people in his life. He says the shock of what he did, and being sent to prison, alienated his brothers and sisters, and they wouldn’t talk to him. “When I did my offense, I lost them all,” he says. “But I’m slowly getting them back with the fact that I’m helping myself in here, and being able to tell them and prove to them that I’m changing.” He says he’s ready to get out. He’s afraid, but he feels he has the tools he needs to keep his life on track. “Yeah, there’s fear, but mostly because they say alcohol is cunning and baffling, so … it could just very easily start all over again,” he says. “But knowing how I’m affecting so many people, it’s in my mind now that I can, so hopefully I don’t.” Phillip says he has a plan to continue his support structure upon release — AA meetings, counseling, staying on his medications. But his biggest concern, he says, is finding a job. “I had been unemployed for a year before coming in here,” he says, “which ultimately added to the depression and the alcoholism.” — Robyn Wisch Ex-Felons Leo Lewis, 26, grew up in a housing project in a predominantly poor neighborhood of North Omaha. He was raised by his mother, who had little money, and his father was in and out of jail. At 13, he says, he realized he had to do whatever was necessary to make money — from raking yards to selling drugs. “I mean it’s not fun when you go to school, and people [are] talking about the holes in your shoes or the same pair of pants you’re wearing for two days in a row, because you don’t have another pair of pants,” he says. “When you’re constantly being the butt of everybody’s jokes, or constantly looking at other people who seem to have and you don’t have, it definitely effects how you feel, especially self-esteem. “It effects how you react to the world. You become angry, you become frustrated, like I did.” Lewis says at one point he was charged with and acquitted of two felony counts for illegal possession of firearms. But he says his record prevents him from maintaining stable employment. In 2006, he says he was hired to work at a fast food restaurant. After two months, he says, he was hired for a management position. But a background check turned up three pages of his criminal history. After reviewing it, the managers called him into the office, denied the promotion and fired him. During the last legislative session at the Nebraska Unicameral, State Sen. Brenda Council, from Northeast Omaha, introduced a bill patterned after a national movement known as “Ban the Box.” The “box” to which it refers is the one felons must check when they apply for jobs. She says far too many employers immediately disqualify ex-offenders from employment. “Believe me, it’s no slap on the employer,” she says, “but in many instances, the employers are not taking the time to examine and evaluate whether or not the crime that the individual was convicted of would have any impact on their ability to successfully perform the position that they have applied to.” The bill to “Ban the Box” did not advance through the Legislature, but Council plans to introduce a modified version next year. She says the state's current budget woes should put her in “better position to persuade my colleagues that removing barriers from people’s successful re-entry back into their communities will result in a cost-saving to the state in the long run.” Fortunately, legislators approved a massive juvenile justice reform bill this year that includes a Council-supported measure to seal criminal records of juvenile offenders. The bill aims to prevent minor offenses from blocking employment and scholarships for young people. This summer, for the first time, several community groups hosted a job fair specifically for ex-offenders. It received an overwhelming response. Hundreds of people lined up around the building at Metropolitan Community College to get in. But one man, clearly discouraged after attending all of the fair's 27 booths, announced that if he didn’t find a job soon he would return to stealing. “If this is not a wakeup call for more jobs to be brought into the North Omaha Community, I don't know what is,” says Willie Hamilton, president of Black Men United. “But, more importantly, the barriers have to come down, because if they don’t, just like the gentleman said, 'if I can’t eat I’m going back to do what I have to do.' “The community needs to take heed. And we have to find better ways to be able to employ folks coming out of these penitentiary systems.” Leo Lewis spent the summer coordinating a community gardening program for the non-profit group, City Sprouts. It's a seasonal, grant-funded program that allows him to devote his time to building relationships with young men, giving them a second chance to do something positive for themselves and the community. “I go around and I help recruit young men like I used to be, who have work ethic and want to do something with themselves,” he says. He shows them how to landscape and garden, and teaches them a skill. “I’m mainly responsible for keeping their heads on straight, basically,” he says, “making sure they are able to learn what they need to learn, and kind of ignore the situations that they are in, so they can make it through.” — Angel Martin

posted at 11:38 am
on Thursday, December 09th, 2010

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