July 31, 2008

We Need More Than Money to Fix our Neighborhoods

We need good neighbors.

by Kate Perkins, Community Blogger.

Almost a year ago I moved to Ward 8 of Washington, DC. In college I studied a small religious movement of Evangelical Christians who moved into decaying urban centers across the country with the desire to “love their neighbors.” We (myself and 5 other single white women) had similar aims when we moved into Anacostia.

Although many of us would shun and even criticize other groups for displaying voyeuristic, Savior-mentalities towards those people who we would come in to serve/change/impact the ambiguous and unidentified “poor,” it was difficult to not approach our neighbors and even people on the streets with some sense of hierarchy—or making others into a “project.” I think many of us expected to move into a more needy area than we did—in our specific neighborhood actually called Fairlawn, people didn’t seem to be very excited to get to know us or have us become a part of their lives—much less help them in any tangible or relational way. This was puzzling for a lot of us.

However, after a year spent in this community, I know I’m beginning to realize that the landscape of poverty in the area—in the city, and likely in the nation—is different than I expected it to be. I thought, early on, that just moving to Ward 8 I’d be confronted with all kinds of social ills, violence, poorly fed children, and simply needy people on every corner. What I found instead was a neighborhood that appeared to not “need” anything I had to offer—time, money, resources.

But over my time serving as a “community blogger” at Bread for the City for the summer, I’ve been challenged to take a second look not only at my own community but also Washington, DC and other urban centers across America. Through the experience of researching issues of affordable housing, learning about the locations and conditions of all kinds of subsidized housing—Project government-owned housing, Project-based Section 8 housing, and Section 8 voucher systems, I’m beginning to see that the landscape of poverty in this city is very different that I expected.

Whereas I expected to encounter need and visible poverty on virtually every block, instead I’ve found that some of the worst poverty in the city, the powerlessness of the 23,418 households on the Section 8 voucher waiting list, often exists in pockets—sometimes even pockets in wealthy areas like Georgetown or Ward 2. Government-owned project housing is isolated to a specific block. Only some landlords will take Section 8 vouchers (or at least charge little enough for rent to accept them).

Policemen don’t arrest everyone on a block—they target suspects, chase after specific people. Similarly, our friends who work in a Catholic charity that serves the people of Washington target certain neighborhoods and focus their efforts. How ignorant I am to not have understood that no need or issue will be universal! Of course—just as just about everything else in life, sociology, social services—issues are more complex than we originally assume them to be.

But this “realization” of sorts that poverty and especially in terms of affordable housing is pocketed in small concentrated nodes around the city (although many more exist in my Ward than elsewhere)—what does this realization mean? Should it change anything except to make me feel more ignorant, disarmed and unable to be of service because of my inability to understand the issues at hand? In an effort to not judge others or label anyone as poor, should I just keep to my own business?

Something about the concentrated nature of need in subsidized housing areas is troubling to me. It’s troubling for multiple reasons. Troubling because I—or people like me—can’t really “go there.” I could rent a house in Ward 8, move down the street from a project housing complex—but I couldn’t move into one. I wouldn’t qualify for any of these subsidies (and could spend a lifetime on a waiting list waiting for one). Our entire theory for how to love your neighbors as people who carry inevitable social and racial privileges is blown away when we’re denied access.

Nationally, social researchers and advocates have, for other reasons, realized that concentrating poverty into specific neighborhoods is problematic. It creates more centers for social ills rather than targeted areas for service providers to visit. More crime, more teenage pregnancy, more drugs, more violence, more poverty. In an effort to correct some of the problems of concentrated poverty, many recent urban policies have focused on creating “mixed income housing.”

In theory, mixed income housing programs such as Hope VI, the New Communities Initiative and other programs we’ve mentioned over our time studying affordable housing create a system that literally mixes people of presumably lower income and higher income backgrounds together. Not only financially in many of these systems do those of higher income brackets literally subsidize the units of lower income folks—the higher income folk’s “social capital,” whether more stable family systems, higher education, or practice working a steady job, are also supposed to influence the lives and social systems of other lower income people intentionally put into the system as well.

However, much of this theory behind mixed income housing assumes that people know how to be “good neighbors” to one another. From my own suburban neighborhood growing up to a year living in Southeast DC, I’m not sure that’s the case. Even when we moved in with the lofty ideal of “loving our neighbors”—not even all our hopes and intentional desires ever came to fruition. We barely know the neighbors names. Our friends who work in local charity say project families sometimes pride themselves on not knowing their neighbors—we’re not like those people I heard a few people we interviewed at local housing projects earlier this month say. Distancing constantly—no matter what the situation. Is it a middle-class, successful thing to not know your neighbors? Maybe it’s to not have to know your neighbors anymore.

After a year of becoming a part of this community and neighborhood I am yet again humbled and reminded that the scope and look of poverty—like so many other social phenomena I’ve studied—are much more complex than even statistics that describe the “subsidized housing percentage by Ward” or “child poverty rate by Ward” would lead us to believe. Not everyone living “east of the river” is in a desperate situation. Many do not need—and frankly, do not want our, or anyone else’s, help.


Mari said...

Many do not need—and frankly, do not want our, or anyone else’s, help.
It may be more complex than that. There may be need but the person may only ask/seek help if the terms are acceptable to them. I once asked my mom if my sister (who lives in public housing) was still on food stamps. Mom said she wasn't because the food stamp people wanted to get up all in your business. The terms were unacceptable (loss of privacy and more govt involvement in family life) and there were other sources of help (family).
This is a good post. I really like the 1st person narrative that sheds light and brings texture to something that a 3rd person figures heavy article wouldn't.

Matt Siemer said...

Hey Mari,

I think you're right. I've talked to a number of people who are equally hesitant because of the loss of privacy or even the fear of it. I think this fear is hightened when you add in that a number of people don't think the government cares about them or is vested in their best interest.

The thing I really like about Kate's post is the reminder that neighborhoods are what you are willing to make them. They can be communities that grow together or transients that keep to themselves or angry, bitter feuders--at the end of the day each individual is responsible for how the larger community operates. I think that's a good concept to talk about.