Durham News

Listening a lesson for poverty initiative

City Councilman Steve Schewel gained a lot from talking to residents of Durham Census Tract 10.01, but he summed it up succinctly.

“There are a lot of poor people in this neighborhood, but they are poor in very different circumstances,” he said.

Schewel was one of about 75 city and county officials and citizen volunteers who went door to door this fall, meeting those who live in the neighborhoods targeted by Durham’s Poverty Reduction Initiative.

They were filling out questionnaires, asking residents about housing, jobs, safety, education, finance and health. Task forces will use the responses to formulate specific, measurable steps to improve residents’ living conditions.

Some volunteers, though, came away with more than just questionnaire impressions.

“You had to listen to their individual story to really get a feel for them,” said Mike Shiflett, speaking at a meeting of survey participants last week. “I was humbled by the experience,”

At that meeting, Mayor Bill Bell said he wanted the task forces to have their plans ready by Jan. 23.

“Nobody’s under the impression that six months from now everybody’s going to be out of poverty. What we hope is there will be some improvement,” Bell said.

“I see that as the ongoing effort throughout 2015.”

Undergraduate insight

Among those in the audience were several students from Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill who took part in the survey as part of a fall-semester class for both institutions on the history of poverty and public policy in Durham and Orange counties.

UNC historian James Leloudis and Duke public-policy professor Robert Korstad, who taught the class, said they want to see it as the start of a longer-term engagement of the universities with the community on poverty issues.

During a panel discussion with Bell last week, a separate event from the survey-takers meeting, Leloudis said they have been working on developing summer fellowships for students to work one year “on the ground” and a second with policy makers in local government.

“One of the things I’ve been trying to do at Duke is to get faculty colleagues and also people on staff ... to really take this issue on and work with the mayor and the town we live in in a much more expansive way,” Korstad said.

“This class, we’re going to continue to do this, we’re not going to go away,” Korstad said.

Duke senior Eileen Adams said meeting people who live with poverty gave her the “biggest insight” she gained from the course.

“They had a lot to say,” Adams said. “These people knew their struggle better than anyone.

“Talking to them and listening ... taught us things about poverty we never could have learned in the classroom,” she said.

“One of the greatest resources we have in combating poverty can be found in the people living in it,” Adams said.

‘Good conversations’

Almost from the poverty-reduction initiative’s beginning last spring, residents of Tract 10.01 have said those from outside who want to help need to listen to the people who live there before making plans to help.

And they have emphasized that it’s vital to have residents themselves involved – even to the point that about a dozen residents walked out of a planning meeting last summer when they felt their opinions and ideas were being overlooked.

Besides getting answers to questions such as “What is your most frequent mode of transportation?” and “What are you doing to make your community safer?” the survey was meant to demonstrate genuine interest in residents’ situations and meet them on their own grounds.

Survey takers were able to meet with 678 individuals, 26 percent of the population in the neighborhoods they covered, and found people – whose names were not recorded – generally glad to talk.

“There were times when we knocked on doors and folks said they weren’t interested,” said City Councilman Eddie Davis. “But we did not encounter anything that would be rude ... just had good conversations along the way.

One man he talked to, Davis said, got “so enthralled with the questions” he forgot about the food he had cooking until it began to burn.

Some of those who went door-to-door found that many people living in poverty are unaware that there are public services available to them.

“That became very clear to me, that there’s a gap,” said County Commissioner Wendy Jacobs. “There’s a disconnect between what people’s needs are and (knowing) how to access resources that already exist.”

‘Different ... difficult’

Jacobs said she was also struck by the fear many residents have for their own safety in their neighborhoods.

“The safety and crime issue can be really emanating from just one ... home or one apartment,” she said, but “it can influence the entire street where people are afraid to walk.

“It really struck home to me how important (it is to have) police walking street by street and getting to know people ... so that people can talk to them and let them know really where problems are,” Jacobs said.

“What the surveys really re-emphasized to me,” Schewel said, “is the diversity and the variety of people and families in that neighborhood.”

One middle-age couple he met lived in “what appears to be pretty nice middle-class housing,” but could not afford to turn on their heat; he met a 35-year-old house painter who “makes a small” living while raising three children as a single parent; there was elderly homeowner getting by with help from her children and a government program.

“There were other people who did not have any of that kind of support and were in much more difficult circumstances,” Schewel said.

“These people are all individuals and their individual circumstances are all different, and that makes it a more difficult challenge to ... try to help.”