Early on in his “neighborhood by neighborhood, year by year” anti-poverty campaign, Mayor Bill Bell issued a call for “foot soldiers” to go “house to house,” to learn the target neighborhood.
As of last week, they were out there, hitting the streets of Block Groups 2 and 3 in Durham County Census Tract 10.01, a section of long-distressed Northeast Central Durham.
They’re going in teams of two to four, citizen volunteers and public officials, each assigned to knock on every household door in one of 17 Work Group Areas and get answers to a 10-page survey.
“What we’re trying to do is get a profile of this community,” Bell said. “We’re trying to sort of ‘ground-truth’ (statistics) to see what this community looks like.”
One prospective trooper, though, didn’t think asking “Do you rent or own the place where you live?” or “What financial services would you use if they were available in your neighborhood?” or “Where in the neighborhood can you exercise or engage in physical activity?” get at the facts of life in Tract 10.01.
“Why ask about rent or own?” said Dennis Garrett. “What about the immediate needs? ... What about the sixth-grade boy that comes home and has got to fix a meal for his first-grade sister because his mama is somewhere (away) ...
“That little old lady that’s got five kids ... and she’s got to put some potatoes in the rice to make the meal. How can we tie personal stories into this?” he said.
‘I’m the guy’
Garrett has a personal story of his own.
He said he grew up in a family of nine, living in a three-bedroom housing project apartment.
“I come from a drug-infested, gang-bang prostitute world,” he said. “I’m that guy who ate out of the trash can. I’m that guy that slept under the bridge. I’m that guy that robbed so I could feed my kids.”
“And I decided I wanted to do something different from going in and out of prison.”
His “something different” turned out to be Love and Respect, an addiction-recovery program he started 12 years ago and operates from a bungalow on Angier Avenue, deep within Block Group 3.
“I think that the mayor has a great plan and he has a desire to want to do something different,” Garrett said. “I support the mayor wholeheartedly. I support the mayor and his effort.
“I just think the questions that were on the survey don’t fit this community,” he said.
Some community members may help with that, adding in what the questions don’t ask. That was, at least, the initial experience of County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow, who made her first survey foray last week.
“People would sometimes fill in with extra responses and stories which were actually very helpful,” she said. “I don’t want to go into detail, but the stories were moving.”
The Poverty Reduction Initiative’s target area is not Durham’s poorest, but, like much of Northeast Central Durham, it has been in decline for decades and has a history of institutional- and city-sponsored relief and revitalization efforts going back for decades.
Reckhow saw “a number of vacant and boarded-up houses” along the route, and “a heavy reliance upon government support” among residents she and her group met.
Their route lay within the Police Department’s “Operation Bull’s Eye” district, an effort begun in 2006 to curb violent crime where it was most prevalent in the city. Residents in neighborhood meetings for the Poverty Reduction Initiative spoke of being afraid to walk certain streets and go into public parks.
“Folks just seemed to have multiple issues and problems in their lives,” Reckhow said. “There was, though, a sense of community – they seemed to know their neighbors on the street.”
The survey Reckhow and others have to work with has eight sections – “Demographic,” “Housing,” “Education,” “Health,” “Finance,” “Jobs,” “Public Safety” and “Other-Communication” – with 61 questions in all, most multiple-choice, prepared by the six task forces working on specific issues.
The answers are meant to inform the task forces on what they have to deal with, and to make personal connections between those who live in 10.01 and the city that wants to help them.
Personal connection is important, because people in need have little trust in “the city” or “social services,” Garrett said.
Those people the survey-takers want to reach “are looking to hide information because of fear. No self-esteem. And insecurity,” he said. “You’re not looking at (the city) coming to help you. ... We don’t know the police are there to protect and serve, because that ain’t what we were taught,” he said.
“I really wouldn’t want to do a survey,” said Sheryl Howard, a resident stopping by Garrett’s office. “Because, honestly, I feel like we’ve been talking for a long time and it seems like they really aren’t hearing us.”
Making a connection, Garrett said, could mean something as personal as taking a hungry 10-year-old to get a sandwich.
“That 10-year-old boy who can’t talk about how he’s living because his grandma said ‘You better not tell anybody’ ... You feed him, now he knows that you’re not his enemy.
“Now he’s (more likely) to tell you that his mama doesn’t get off work till 7 o’clock and he had to find something for him and his sister to stretch a pack of ramen noodles,” he said. “And you can watch him eat his sandwich fast because he’s scared somebody’s going to get it.
“You know, body language will tell us way more than the words.”
For survey purposes, the city’s Neighborhood Improvement department broke the two Block Groups into 17 sub-blocks, with a team assigned to each. Training for the project involves some basic advice – act comfortable, be patient, smile, invite residents to join a task force themselves – and caution.
“Every door you go to is not going to be welcoming,” Lynwood Best of the Neighborhood Improvement staff told the first trainees. “We don’t want that to be a discouragement.”
The plan is to have all the surveying done by Oct. 3.
“Just being out there and seeing, talking and seeing what was going on, it is eye-opening,” Reckhow said. “It’s one thing to read data and it’s another thing to actually hear individual stories. That’s what I came away with.”