Columns » Exile on Jones Street

Public policy and indifference punish the very poor

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No one knows how many North Carolinians live in extreme poverty, but it's estimated to be between 700,000 and 1 million. What we do know is that although the number is increasing, the poor remain almost invisible to many of us.

You may have come away from the vote on Amendment 1 with a sense of this state's sharp divisions. But deep poverty in North Carolina is constrained by neither geography nor politics. In all 100 counties, waiting lists for housing and other services far outstrip available funds.

For the past few months I've tagged along with folks from the state NAACP, the NC Justice Center, AARP, the Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change at N.C. Central University and the UNC law school's Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity as they've traveled across the state collecting stories from those in poverty.

Each place, about three dozen in all, shared a common history: For 20 or 30 years, as jobs disappeared, the situation steadily worsened. Then the recession hit and the bottom fell out. The sharp rise in demand for social services and the budget cuts to those same services have swamped relief programs. Meanwhile, ever-tighter eligibility requirements have tossed many off the rolls entirely. Faced with almost indefinite waits for public assistance, more people have turned to food banks and faith organizations—those too are maxed out.

Hearing people explain, often in graphic detail, how their lives unwound and what they face was powerful testimony to the way state policies and indifference have increased the ranks of the very poor—and all but guaranteed them no way out.

Grace House, Hickory

They tried to coax Roger up to the mic to tell his story. "You're not shy are you, Roger?" someone said.

Roger wasn't shy. He was dizzy. Several months ago somebody whacked him in the back of the head with a tire iron. He was in a coma for two months. When he got better, he returned to the woods, where he stays. He lives alongside a few fellow veterans and a dozen or so other people in one of Catawba County's homeless camps.

As he waited to tell his story, Roger couldn't stay seated because the room began to spin. He gets dizzy a lot, and when he does he needs to stand. A volunteer from Grace House, a shelter that helps feed Roger and hundreds like him, put her arm around him as he held on to her and steadied himself.

"It's OK," she said. "It's OK."

Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church, Wilmington

Tears rolled down Elizabeth's face as she told her story of addiction and recovery, her struggles to find work, and life in a crumbling, unheated trailer. She was shaking and leaning hard on the pulpit of a church that, until that morning, she'd never been in. She occasionally stopped to gather herself. Then the words came out in short bursts.

"I've worked all my life, since I was 14. Not everyone who's poor wants a handout, not everyone who's poor is trying to get over on the government. We're hard-working people."

Elizabeth was a health care worker who was injured on the job and draws $8,000 a year in disability. It's not enough to live on, especially in a town with a dwindling stock of low-income housing and a freeze on new program applicants. "I got sick," she said. The heavy doses of steroids she takes to fight an autoimmune disease has caused her body to swell. She's grateful to have found the recovery house where she lives, but it's temporary, and the thought of what comes next clearly terrifies her. "I don't know where I'm going to go."

Bridge over the Cape Fear River, Fayetteville

Sir Cedric is funny and engaging, but now and again he gives you a look that reminds you not to laugh too much. The encampment where he lives is a damp place—damp mixed with the smoke of three or four scattered fire pits. The population varies. The evening we paid a visit it was hovering around 20.

"Yeah," he said with a sweep of one arm, "right here next to beautiful Lake Placid." He pointed down the steep embankment to the Cape Fear River, muddy and running high from recent rains. Water trickles down the bridgeworks around us. Cars and trucks passing above provide steady drone and thump. The tents are sturdy—lots of duct tape, tarp and old wool. "We know how to do this," Sir Cedric says. "They [the military] taught us how to survive."

He told us how he lost his house and his family and ended up living under a bridge. He's better off than most, he said. He has some benefits and is taking classes. While telling his story he also told us about his buddy, a younger guy who sat with his back to us stirring a fire pit with a stick. He did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Sir Cedric said. He was wounded twice. Nearby, the young vet's dog was curled up on the mattress they share on a muddy bluff under a bridge with an excellent view of Lake Placid.

The poor in this state aren't going anywhere. They're going to live with hunger and untreated illness and spend the night in unsafe and often hellish places. For many, our indifference has sentenced them to a slow and painful death. One day we may turn from this cruelty toward compassion, but for some of the hundreds who turned out to tell their stories it will be too late. Some of them, it seemed, were going down for the last time and had come out to tell us their story if only to give us a last look: to meet us face-to-face and wonder with us, "Why?"

This article appeared in print with the headline "There but for fortune go you or I."

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