Technology connects people living on low incomes with support networks

Guy on Cellphone by Brick WallIn our recent post “When homelessness hits home,” we reprinted Solid Ground Board President Lauren McGowan’s touching reflections on her mother’s passing, and the important role her cellphone had in keeping her in touch with loved ones during the years she experienced homelessness. As Lauren writes, “She felt safe outside as long as she could end the night with a text or a call to say, ‘Love you, love you more.’ … I always made sure she had a phone so we could maintain connection.”

ConnectUp logoSolid Ground’s ConnectUp (formerly Community Voice Mail) exists to keep people who are struggling to get by on low incomes and/or experiencing homelessness connected to support networks, jobs and housing opportunities via telecommunications access in King County, WA. Specifically, ConnectUp helps people access phone, voice mail, internet and other connections to the services they need. The program also does education and outreach on telecommunications assistance programs for service providers and people living on low incomes, and they broadcast information about community resources.

The following story, “A Homeless Man and His BlackBerry: It’s not loitering if you’re on your phone” by Kat Ascharya is reposted with permission by Mobiledia (originally published 6/12/13). It highlights just how important staying connected can be to the dignity, livelihood and emotional well-being of people experiencing homelessness.

You could tell he was different the moment he walked in the coffee shop. It wasn’t his appearance. He looked presentable, if a little rough around the edges, clutching an old BlackBerry to his barrel chest. It was how he moved: warily, shoulders hunched over and eyes darting. The body language would read as suspicious, if not for the flicker of fear and apprehension in his eyes – as if he was scared of being noticed, vigilant to his surroundings and desperately trying to blend in at the same time.

He ordered a coffee, carefully counting out coins on the counter. He sat down at the table near me and pulled out his phone, just like nearly everyone else at the shop. He punched in a few numbers and began talking in a low voice, discreet but urgent. I was only a few seats away, but I couldn’t help but overhear his conversations.

Did someone have some cash jobs for him? Could he crash at a friend of a friend’s place? Could he get a ride out to the soup kitchen? After a few calls, it became clear: he was homeless. A homeless man with a smartphone.

Bert isn’t unsheltered. He bounces between emergency shelters and friends’ couches while he seeks temporary, cash-based day-laborer work. He refuses, in fact, to call himself homeless. “This is just a temporary condition,” he tells me more than once, after we struck up a conversation. Over and over again, he said he would get himself out of “this tight spot,” though he was vague about how long he’d been in it and how he got there. He made it clear: he hadn’t given up.

It wasn’t easy to engage him in conversation. When I first asked how he liked his BlackBerry, he looked at me like I was crazy. Later, he chalked up his guarded nature to the fact that he often doesn’t have casual conversations anymore. Most people, he said, tend to avoid him once they realize he is poor and transient. “You can’t hide it, being poor,” he said.

He made a joke about people acting as if poverty was an infectious disease. They give him a wide berth and pretend he’s not there. “I can go whole days without people not even looking at me,” he said. “And when they do, it often means they’re sizing you up, wondering if they need to kick you out or something.” The result, he said, is a sense of exile, from any feeling of belonging you have to the human race.

His phone, then, functions as an important conduit. On the surface, it’s his most important, practical tool. He can call places for work with it. He can call up shelters and other social services to see what’s available. He calls public transportation to find out which bus lines are running and check out schedules.

E-mail and text is especially important. He can reach out to friends to see if he can crash with them for a night or two, especially if the weather is rough. But he has to be careful. “You don’t want to impose,” he said. “You can’t exhaust your friends. Otherwise they’ll get tired of helping you, thinking, ‘Why are you still struggling?'” The hidden worry is that you’ll never leave.

Ironically, all this is easier to manage over text and e-mail than the phone. “You don’t have to worry about sounding upbeat and confident all the time,” he said. No one wants to help out the hopeless, and sometimes it’s not really so easy to disguise the worry and anxiety from your voice.

Slippery Slopes
Despite nearly everyone owning a cell phone, we think of them as luxuries, especially as data plans approach $100 a month. The idea of a homeless man with an iPhone, but no job or roof over his head, is discomfiting, mostly because poverty is perhaps one of the last bastions of unexamined prejudice in the U.S. Few would argue that people of different races or genders shouldn’t own phones, but it’s still common to temper sympathy for the homeless or destitute if they have a phone.

Even the most progressive areas of the country can show a certain callousness to what poverty should look and feel like. In San Francisco, for example, city supervisor Malia Cohen sparked controversy when she posted a picture of a homeless man on Facebook, talking on a phone while huddled underneath a freeway overpass. “This kind of made me laugh,” she commented, which led to an uproar and eventual removal of the picture. Ironically, California last month decided to expand their Lifeline program to give free phones and service to the homeless, recognizing the value of the devices for the disadvantaged.

The reality is homelessness is a simple term for a complex sociological condition, affected by a mosaic of factors that interact and affect one another in often unexpected ways. Large-scale trends like unemployment combust with local factors, such as lack of affordable housing or services easily accessible and open to those in need. Add in volatile personal situations – like addiction, family violence, financial instability or simply being far from family – you have a slippery slope to stand upon.

The homeless themselves range from the “unsheltered” living on the streets to doubled-up families living in single-occupancy homes. That includes those in transitory housing or emergency shelters, as well as the famous 2004 case of a student at NYU who attended school while sleeping at the library and showering at the gym.

About 20 out of every 10,000 people are homeless, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Anyone without enough personal or social capital can get caught in the cycle, and it’s not easy to pull out, when you consider the tremendous shame and judgment they experience within themselves and from the world at large. But there’s one effective tool that can help. Yes, phones.

Keeping Up Appearances
On another level, Bert said his phone connects him to less tangible, but still important, resources. He knows people can reach him, no matter where he sleeps at night. He gets daily e-mails from an online ministry, with inspirational messages and passages from the Bible. Those keep up his spirit and faith and keep him going. He can read news on the browser, too. Ironically, his biggest criticism of BlackBerry is the browser: it’s slow and outdated and most websites won’t load on it anymore. He only gets a certain amount of time on the computer at the public library, so he often begins researching jobs and housing on his phone and makes a list of websites he wants to visit when he gets on a computer with a faster connection.

The phone also, in part, structures his day in an often chaotic life. He has an exhaustive list of places to charge his phone, and he makes sure to hit them at some point during the day. He’s careful about his power and data usage and carries his charger at all times, in one of the capacious pockets of his army jacket. “When I see a free outlet somewhere, I have to say, it feels like Christmas,” he said. Free Wi-Fi inspires the same feeling; he can save up his valuable data usage.

But the most valuable aspect about his phone, is simply that it makes him look like everyone else. “You won’t believe it,” he tells me, “but if I didn’t have my phone, I probably couldn’t just sit here and have my coffee and be talking to you. It gives me something I can do in public. It’s not loitering if I’m typing or talking on my phone.” Loitering, he said, is often a good excuse to kick the homeless out of a place. And a phone is a passport that lets him stay in places longer than he would otherwise.

“You have to realize about my situation, most people don’t look beyond appearances,” he said. And if there’s one thing that matters when you’re homeless, according to Bert, it’s appearances. The minute the facade cracks and reveals his struggle, no one wants to be around you. No one wants to see it. People kick you out of places; they can tell you don’t belong anywhere.

In talking with Bert about not just phones, but his life in general, I realized he’s someone with a clear-eyed inventory of his scant resources. And he maximizes them with an eye to maintain appearances. Within that ruthless calculus, a phone was more important than his car, which he sold after the winter and didn’t need to sleep in as a last resort. And besides, he said, cops are on the lookout for people sleeping in cars – it’s not as practical as you think.

He used the car money to save for his phone bill, as well as a cheap $30-a-month membership to a local 24-hour gym in a central part of town, which gives him regular access to a hot shower and a place he can go late at night if he needs. He knows that sounds ludicrous, but says nothing marks a homeless man more than pungent body odor and an unclean appearance.

You could have all the iPhones in the world with you, he said, but if you don’t have a regular way to stay clean, that’s the most dangerous thing of all in a precarious situation. Nothing gets a homeless person kicked out faster, rejected from a job instantly or denied housing than looking dirty. He kept repeating, “Dirty ain’t dignified.” It’s often that dignity that Bert fights so hard to maintain, even at the expense of other things – but definitely not at the cost of a cell phone.

Through the Cracks
Bert’s ability to stay afloat and even keep up his personal dignity sheds light not only on how central phones are to our lives – no matter how poor you are – but also the world’s poverty of generosity and compassion. For every great example of helping others – such as the Reddit user who found a Chicago homeless man and delivered a care package to him – there are countless others who slip through the cracks, who walk in through doors of public places, face stares of cold evaluation and wonder if they’ll be kicked out.

Bert lives assuming that people’s generosity and compassion are limited to a certain point – and once you push past that point, you’re lost beyond all help. Despite his situation, he’s a proud man, but burdened with the “double consciousness” that marginalized people often have – able to see himself both through his eyes, and through the eyes of how others would judge him. And it was clear that the discrepancy between the two distressed him, and much of his survival strategy tried to bridge that gap.

I saw Bert only a few times after our first conversation, though we never did talk as in-depth. Sometimes he let me buy him a coffee refill, though he wanted to buy the first cup himself. But after a few months, I didn’t see Bert anymore, and I’m not really sure what happened to him.

Did he finally pull himself out of his “temporary condition,” as he called it? Or was he like countless others who slipped through the cracks into the shadowy netherworld of genuine destitution and poverty, becoming one of the “unsheltered”? I just don’t know. He may still have his own phone number, but he remains out of reach, lost somewhere in a world where social ties are tenuous connections, no matter how many devices we have.

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We’re hitting the road: Poverty Action Listening Sessions begin July 23

Summer is in full swing here in Washington State. That means it is Listening Session season at the Statewide Poverty Action Network! We will hit the road to meet our members and gather our network’s priorities for the upcoming year. We’ll also host advocacy trainings in a town near you!

Over the next few months, we will head to Tacoma, Seattle, Pasco/Tri-Cities, Spokane, Everett, Kent and more. We are also pairing each Listening Session with one of our Advocacy Trainings to make each stop on the Listening Session Tour double as an opportunity to tell your story directly to your legislators!

Protect WA State FamiliesPoverty Action Listening Sessions 2013:

  • SEATTLE: July 23-24
  • TACOMA: Aug. 9-10
  • KENT: Aug. 27-29
  • EVERETT: Sept. 10-12
  • TRI-CITIES/PASCO: Sept. 25-27
  • SPOKANE: October 8-10

Our first Listening Session is in Seattle on Tuesday, July 23 (from 2:30-4:30pm at the 2100 Building, 2100 24th Ave S, Seattle, WA). It will focus on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and State Family Assistance (SFA). We’re especially in need of members with the following experiences:

  1. Do you currently receive TANF or SFA?
  2. Have you received TANF/SFA in the past three years?
  3. Do you have ideas about how to improve TANF/SFA to make it a better program for families?
  4. Are you looking to share your experience using these programs with lawmakers?

If you answered yes to ANY of these questions, we want to hear from you! Please call 1.866.789.7726 to learn more or to RSVP. You will receive $20 for travel expenses; please RSVP for childcare.

Come and share your story and help shape our legislative agenda, then join us on day two for a roundtable discussion with lawmakers on the issues you care about! Spots are limited for these sessions, so don’t delay – reserve your space today!

We need to hear from you!
There is no better time than now to get your story heard. Check back with the Poverty Action website soon for more information about upcoming Listening Sessions near you. And if you are interested in attending any of the dates above, give us a call TODAY at 1.866.789.7726 or email gwen@povertyaction.org to reserve your place at a Listening Session, Advocacy Training or both! We hope to see you on our Listening Session Tour!

Community Report 2012: ‘Breaking the cycle of generational poverty’

Solid Ground's Community Report 2012

Solid Ground’s Community Report 2012

Hot off the press! Solid Ground’s report to our community on our 2012 work and accomplishments is now available. “Breaking the cycle of generational poverty” reports on recent impacts we’ve made in our community. But it also highlights the long-term positive change our programs can have in the lives of the people who access our services, and the ripple effect this has on their children’s lives.

As Solid Ground approaches our 40th anniversary, we remain focused and committed to our mission to end poverty in our community, and to help our society become one without racism and other oppressions.

Our engagement in this work is only possible through the support of passionate and committed employees, donors, volunteers, and government and nonprofit partners. With this continued support, we look forward to working ever more purposefully to help families and individuals overcome the challenges of living in poverty and progress to a place of thriving.

Feel free to share “Breaking the cycle of generational poverty” with others who may be interested in our work. If you’re not already on our mailing list and would like a hard copy of the report mailed to you, please email your mailing address to publications@solid-ground.org.

Changing lives & systems through advocacy

Advocacy has always been a central watchword for Solid Ground. Throughout our 39 years of providing for people’s basic needs, we have also addressed the political realities that create barriers for people to thrive.

Advocates in Olympia on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, 2013

Advocates in Olympia on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, 2013

The more than 50,000 people who come to us each year are the true experts on poverty in our community. Their lives revolve around the challenges of living on less in an increasingly class-divided world. Twenty five years ago, low-income communities organized across Washington State through our Fair Budget Action Campaign and the Welfare Reform Coalition. Both were instrumental in passing the Seattle Housing Levy, creating the Molar Majority to fund adult dental care, and other groundbreaking efforts that get more people to solid ground in our community.Fair Budget eventually became the Statewide Poverty Action Network, bringing together leadership from low-income communities around the state to articulate a community-based agenda and run impactful organizing campaigns. Poverty Action and allied coalitions and agencies have been instrumental in protecting lifeline benefits, passing the Foreclosure Fairness Act, grading legislators on the racial justice impact of their work, and giving previously incarcerated people, teens and other marginalized populations training and support to reclaim their political power.

This approach creates tremendous synergy. The personal becomes political as our advocacy in Olympia is strengthened by decades of direct service and the individual voices of people most impacted by policies. Case managers help identify trends and stories among program participants that seed efforts to make laws more responsive to the needs of people living on low incomes.

At Solid Ground, we believe education is foundational to a better future. In addition to our partnerships to support literacy, skill building and leadership development in Seattle/King County schools, we actively work to close the opportunity gap between wealthier white students and those with lower incomes and students of color.

Disenfranchised people – those experiencing homelessness, immigrants with limited English proficiency, and those who lack education or job experience – can all achieve their dreams if they have access to equal opportunity and resources. By bringing their testimony into the political process, Poverty Action and allies influence laws, policies and practices and set the stage for transformative, generational success.

At Solid Ground, we believe our community can move beyond poverty and oppression to a place where all people have access to quality housing, nutritious food, equal justice and opportunities to thrive. We believe strong advocacy is a vital component of interrupting generational cycles of poverty. We believe effective advocacy starts in the personal narratives of our community.

And we believe that successful advocacy secures long-term, positive changes in our society.

June 2013 Groundviews newsletter: Finding her voice

Groundviews is Solid Ground’s quarterly newsletter for our friends and supporters. Below is our June 2013 lead story; visit our website to read the entire issue online.

Renee K. Jones (center front, in a red coat) at the MLK Day 2013 rally on the capitol steps In Olympia, WA

Renee K. Jones (center front, in a red coat) at the MLK Day 2013 rally on the capitol steps In Olympia, WA

Renee K. Jones is a busy woman. She’s a single mom of two preschool-age girls. She’s in college full time, working toward a BA in Social Work at the University of Washington, having graduated with honors from Highline Community College. She also works 20 hours a week and volunteers at a domestic violence agency one day a week. On top of it all, she frequently speaks publically: to her legislators in Olympia, WA, to groups learning about the impacts of domestic violence – even delivering Highline’s 2012 commencement speech.  

But in the fall of 2011, Renee didn’t yet know the power of her voice. At the time, domestic violence had left her and her daughters homeless, living in transitional housing, and struggling to make ends meet. Then, through the Statewide Poverty Action Network’s advocacy training, Renee found that not only does her story matter, she has access to all the tools she needs to express it.

As Renee puts it, “I had escaped my violent situation, and through the housing program, Poverty Action came and spoke about advocacy training – how to be your own advocate and speak out on behalf of issues. I am a TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] recipient, and I rely on Working Connections Childcare and a lot of things that the state was looking to cut.”

At the advocacy training, Renee found out about the annual Poverty Action at the Capitol event in Olympia, bringing together people struggling to get by on low incomes along with their allies to learn about issues impacting people living in poverty, then guiding them to frame their stories and share them with their legislators, face to face.

Renee says, “I was very excited for the first time to be able to participate in that, because I knew that the potential budget cuts would really impact my life. In Olympia, I raised my hand and shared a little bit of my story. And the staff from Poverty Action pulled me to the side and asked if I could go and speak to some of the legislative representatives. And that’s what I did, the first time! I just jumped right on board.”

Renee speaks with Q13 Fox News political analyst C.R. Douglas after sharing her story at a legislative press conference to save TANF.

Renee speaks with Q13 Fox News political analyst C.R. Douglas after sharing her story at a legislative press conference to save TANF.

Since her initial experience in Olympia, Renee has been an advocate on fire. In March 2012, she published her story in an Op-Ed in the Tacoma News Tribune and also testified at a Washington State legislative hearing. Thanks to her actions and those of other activists, no new cuts were made to TANF, and some funds were restored to Working Connections Childcare.

“The first time I went down – to be very, very honest – I was sitting here thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, this millions of dollars that they’re looking to cut from low-income families, there’s no way that my voice will make a difference.’” But, she says, “To have the support and direction of the Poverty Action staff – to take my story and not alter it, but empower it to explain it to others, and for that to be the pivotal reason why things were not cut – is an amazing feeling. Beyond amazing; I can’t even explain it. It made me feel like I have a voice.”

Here’s an excerpt from Renee’s testimony:

    … As I worked 40-hours per week in a minimum wage position, I struggled to afford paying for basic necessities including rent, utilities, food, childcare, diapers and basic hygiene items. When my meager checks would arrive, I was forced to decide what we had to be without that month. Sometimes that meant no diapers, sometimes that meant no toilet paper or shampoo, sometimes it meant I wouldn’t be able to do laundry that month. Every cent was spent monthly, and I still wasn’t able to afford what it took to survive.
“… It has taken me four years, but I am finally at a point where I have begun to reach stability. Living off of $348 per month, I have had to be very creative with finances. We certainly still struggle, but through accessing state assistance, I have been able to attend school and will be graduating with honors this spring – an education that is critical to getting a better paying job, gaining full self-sufficiency and keeping my family from reverting back to dependence on the system. … TANF isn’t about luxuries, it’s about necessities.”

Renee says speaking to her legislators is “nerve-wracking, but phenomenal. It’s so wonderful to be on this journey and be able to advocate, not just for myself, but for 60,000 other people in Washington State who really rely on this. There’s a lot of stigma behind welfare recipients and a lot of the things that happen within the system. So I wanted to explain how this program does help. Cutting this would not help anybody, it would just create a bigger problem.

“This is how my experience has shaped this – and I know that other people are going through it – and I want to help other people come through this as well. And to know that my voice does make a difference is an incredible feeling.”

For more information about the Statewide Poverty Action Network, visit www.povertyaction.org or email info@povertyaction.org.

Fair Tenant Screening Act Passes in the Senate and Moves to House Judiciary

Solid Ground celebrates a great victory for renters in Washington: On Monday, March 11, 2013, the Washington State Senate moved one step closer to making landlord-tenant laws more fair and just for tenants. The Senate voted on the Fair Tenant Screening Act, and with true bipartisan support they passed SB 5568 with a vote of 46-3. This is a huge step toward making sure that domestic violence survivors are not discriminated against or denied housing based on a protection order or their history of domestic violence.

SenJeanne_Kohl-WellesTo hear senators Hobbs, Kohl-Welles and Frockt’s moving testimony on the Senate floor, visit the TVW website for March 11, 2013 Senate coverage, and scroll to 21:30 minutes to watch the 6 ½-minute video coverage.

But that doesn’t mean our work is done! Please send an email to thank Senator Hobbs (steve.hobbs@leg.wa.gov), Senator Kohl-Welles (Jeanne.Kohl-Welles@leg.wa.gov) and Senator Frockt (David.Frockt@leg.wa.gov) for their ongoing support and leadership for the Fair Tenant Screening Act.

Thanks to everyone who offered their support of this critical bill by writing emails and letters and making calls. Also, special thanks and congratulations to the advocates who stood strong on this issue and made this victory possible: Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, Tenants Union, Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Columbia Legal Services and Northwest Justice Project.

Join us for Hunger Action Day in Olympia on February 22!

Your voice is needed to end hunger in Washington!Hunger Action Day logo

Join Solid Ground’s Hunger Action Center for the Anti-Hunger & Nutrition Coalition‘s HUNGER ACTION DAY at the Washington State Capitol, Friday, February 22!

This Lobby Day allows the Coalition and supporters to highlight current issues affecting families facing hunger and bring forward priorities to reduce food insecurity in Washington State. Through the collective voice of a coalition, legislators hear the struggles of Washington State residents, food banks, farmers and service providers and are asked to make policy decisions that will end hunger in our communities.

Over the years, this coalition has successfully brought hunger advocates to Olympia to promote strategic policy and state appropriations that maximize federal nutrition programs, reinforce our community-based emergency food assistance system, and link local farmers with the needs of the hungry.

The Anti-Hunger & Nutrition Coalition’s priorities this year are:

  1. Restore full benefits for families on the State Food Assistance Program.
  2. An increase to WSDA’s Emergency Food Assistance Program.
  3. Restore WSDA’s Farm to School and Small Farms programs.
  4. Create a balanced and sustainable state budget that includes new sources of revenue.

Let your legislators hear your voice and encourage them to support a food secure Washington. Visit the Anti-Hunger & Nutrition Coalition’s website to register.

Individuals who are not able to come to Olympia can participate in the Coalition’s online Lobby Day. Click here to join an online petition. This petition asks lawmakers to ensure that Washington families don’t go hungry in these tough times.

If you have any questions about Hunger Action Day 2013, please contact Elsa Ferguson at elsaf@withinreachwa.org.

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