When Roger heard of his church’s program to allow homeless families to park overnight in their lot, he volunteered to watch over the lot on Monday and Thursday nights. He would provide directions to the bathroom and make sure no harm came to those who slept.
The church, in the middle of Portland, had only four parking spaces on its property. Nearby businesses allowed worshippers to use their parking, but worried about potential increased crime and noise that welcoming the homeless might create, and refused to participate in the overnights. The four spaces were open for overnight parking at 8pm, and by 8:20 all four spots were filled. A short man in a t-shirt with the Coca-Cola logo almost entirely faded off helped a greasy woman out.
“Is there a bathroom we could use?” rumbled the man.
“Well,” Roger paused. “I’m not supposed to let grown men sleep here, but as long as you don’t make trouble or…noise, I’m not gonna tell you to leave her alone. Deal?”
“Yes.” The man’s face was red but he stood tall.
“This way.” Roger turned to lead them, but the man turned back to the car. Roger stepped back, but the man only grabbed a stiff pink backpack and locked the car. Then, while Roger waited, he triple checked that the car was locked, and finally turned back.
Roger lead them through the side door of the church. When he returned, the parking lot was filled with the wails of a young child.
As Roger walked closer he heard a mother’s soothing voice under the child’s screams. “I’ll be back when you wake up, I promise. Now hush before I lose my patience.” A woman in an untucked McDonald’s shirt pushed a blanket firmly over her squirming one year old while a three and an eight year old looked on, wide-eyed beneath their own blankets. The backseat had been reclined nearly flat to make them ‘beds’ next to each other.
“Is there anything I can help with?” asked Roger.
“They say I can park here overnight. I won’t be able to move the car until after 7 when I get back from work,” she said, not looking at Roger.
“That’s fine,” said Roger, even though he had been furnished with the number for children’s services in preparation for just such a case. “I’ll be on watch all night to make sure nobody bothers your car.” He ducked his head inside the door. “If you kids need anything, just ask.”
“Read us story!” said the three year old.
“No,” said the mother. “It’s very kind of you, but they won’t be any trouble. They’ll stay in the car quietly.” Her last sentence had particular stress as she made eye contact with each child in turn.
“It’s alright,” said Roger. “I can read them to sleep.”
“Okay,” said the mother, checking her watch and obviously deciding she didn’t have time to argue the point. “One story, kids, and then you sleep. Close and lock the door after the nice man leaves.” She gave them each a quick kiss, and turned to Roger. “Thank you,” she said grudgingly, and walked off across the parking lot. The man and woman passed her on their way back from the bathroom, still faded but no longer greasy
“Here’s our book,” said the eight year old, producing a battered copy of The Poky Little Puppy from a box at their feet.
“Alright,” said Roger, settling down to read.
After two renditions of the book the two younger children has fallen asleep, and the eight year old reached out for the book. Roger handed it back and closed the door for him before returning to the bench by the church door for his long vigil.
The next night, someone else would watch. Roger didn’t know who, but it would be easy for them to look too hard at the rules and not hard enough at the people. Where would these people go then?
The African American Financial Capabilities Initiative is sponsored by Prosperity Now’s Racial Wealth Divide Initiative. Their website describes the motivation for and goals of the program:
“The Racial Wealth Divide Initiative at Prosperity Now believes the people closest to racial economic inequality are also best positioned to address it. It is estimated that it will take 228 years for Black Americans to reach the level of wealth White households enjoy today. Individual behavior is often seen as the cause of this racialized wage and wealth divide. However, there is compelling evidence that racial economic inequality is primarily the result of long-term investment in some communities and a lack of investment in others. The African American Financial Capability Initiative aims to reverse this trend.
“The stark racial economic disparities are a wake-up call to the Northwest Area Foundation and a call for fresh thinking and new investment. In response, the Foundation committed $4.35 million over three years to Black nonprofits in six cities within its footprint and to Prosperity Now to provide technical assistance to the participating organizations. The Initiative brings together six African American communities of practice (CoPs) to collaboratively develop and implement innovative, community-centered financial capability pilot projects. This development model also aims to highlight promising practices that address racial economic inequality developed the communities most impacted.”
In this episode we interviews three of the six participating Communities of Practice. (Catch next episode to see the remaining three.)
In Seattle, Leon Garnett, COO of Byrd Barr Place, Michelle Maryweather, President of Urban League Metro Seattle, and Ed Prince, ED of WA state commission on African American Affairs, are working to undermine gentrification. In the 1970s, the Central District of Seattle was 40% Black. Now, it’s 17% and dwindling. Housing prices have skyrocketed: both rent and property tax if you own. People are driven to homelessness, and Garnett, Maryweather and Prince are working to create an example of Land Trusts, owned by the African American community, which would allow permanent security of housing within communities.
In Des Moines, Teree Caldwell-Johnson, CEO of Oakridge Neighborhood, gathered comprehensive data about the areas of need in the community. She publicized a “Tale of Two Cities” with widespread economic growth across the city, and a widespread lack within the African American community. She focused on Community Development of Financial Institutions to spread awareness of resources and education to the community.
In Portland, Melissa Hicks, Program Director for Stability and Empowerment of Self Enhancement Inc., and Andrea Debnam, Manager of Resident Services for Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives, identified a systemic–and until recent decades legal–exclusion of African Americans from opportunity. Hicks and Dabnam focused on housing stability as a cornerstone for increased stability and potential prosperity.
Listen to episode 200 below to hear more, or go to that episode.
Leon: I think the most pressing need that we’re dealing with right now is just the displacement of Black people from Seattle, especially from the Black district in Seattle. Back in the 70s we were 70% Black in the central district, right now its about 14% and dwindling quickly.
Michelle: The housing prices have skyrocketed. Not only that but property taxes increased tremendously as well. So even if you own [you can’t afford it]. Just this year our property taxes went up something like 17% in one year.
Ed: The largest racial group that’s homeless are African Americans.
Michelle: While we only make up 7-8% of the population we are about 40% of the homeless population.
Leon: It’s gonna take a radical solution. We know that programming, education, income alone is not going to affect–it’s not gonna close the wealth divide. So we’re gonna have to do some really radical things all at one time.
Terri: What one economy, which is what we’re calling the racial wealth work in Des Moines, has done is to paint a face on the African American issues that arise as a result of individuals living not only in generational poverty but the impact of institutional racism on people of color living in our community.
Terri: I think the natural tendency for people when you begin to lift up sort of all of the disparities that exist is for people to suggest that, well, I’m not responsible for that. That’s personal responsibility. That’s making the wrong choices. That’s people not doing what they’re supposed to do, and as we all know that’s not the issue. As often as we create opportunities for people to do things, we need to recognize that this idea of institutional racism and the implication of that over time and circumstances has created almost a net negative for a certain part of our population.
Melissa: Portland actually is a racist state. It was built sort of as a white-topia back in the 1800s and …it really was well documented, in the state’s constitution, the racism that certainly does exist in this state.
Andrea: It is quite difficult living in this city, in this state, particularly when once upon a time it was against the law. We were not even allowed to be here you know.
Melissa: In the 2000s the constitution was ratified to take away that language that it was illegal for people of color, specifically calling out African Americans, to live in the state. We definitely had sundown laws, and there were billboards across the state, especially as you head into eastern Oregon saying ‘Don’t let the sun go down on you,’ so that if you were a person of color and that sun goes down, your life is in your own hands at that point.
Melissa: Recognizing that housing right now, and I know it’s a crisis across the country and across our state, but housing for low income people, not just people of color. But for African Americans, because of what we just talked about with the racism being pretty prevalent, affordable housing right now is probably one of the biggest needs that our community is facing. Both of our agencies have housing programs and are really trying to figure out how do we address this need, knowing that when our families go out into the communities to try to find an affordable two-three bedroom apartment, that its not happening. And we have multiple situations where families, a single mom with four kids, are living in their car. And they’re moving from parking lot to parking lot. And they’re starting to actually make…there have been some churches that are getting involved that are making their parking lots a safe space for people to park their cars overnight. And they’ll have a staff person at least awake and present to make sure people don’t get broken into or harassed by other people, and as long as they move before 7am, it’s a safe space for them to go to. …What we know about our community is that you’re not gonna go sleep under a bridge or honestly go to a shelter because of how you’re going to be treated by other people in that shelter.
Andrea: You always know you’re doing the right thing when you get people going against you. So we know we are doing what we need to do.