Washington Post, February 27, 20008: Gathering Seeks Solutions for City’s Poorer Residents

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By Yolanda Woodlee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 27, 2008; B04

Tom Brown, chairman of the Ward 8 Workforce Development Council, has perfected an approach to attacking urban poverty: He takes employers on a job tour in Southeast Washington neighborhoods to personally meet with unemployed residents.

Since October, more than 100 residents have found jobs in the twice-monthly sessions at churches and community centers in the heart of the neighborhood. The goal is to employ 300 residents a year.

“The success of it is because of the intimacy of the setup,” Brown said. “It’s straight talk between unemployed residents and employers.”

If the city is going to reduce the number of families living in poverty, then innovative methods, such as Brown’s, must be used to address unemployment, substance abuse, affordable housing, health care and education, he and others gathered at the Matthews Memorial Baptist Church in Southeast said yesterday.

Brown was one of 200 business and religious leaders, housing advocates and social services providers who participated in the Poverty Reduction Coalition hosted by D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8).

Poverty is an entrenched problem, participants said, and efforts to address it have seen some successes but too many failures to count. Yesterday marked a redoubling of their efforts, they said. One participant after another took the microphone to report on ideas from the mini-round-table discussions they had had throughout the morning: putting $15 million in the 2009 budget for housing purchase assistance; helping impoverished residents prepare to testify on their own behalf at council hearings and school board meetings; and dealing more aggressively with drug treatment options.

Barry, who represents the poorest ward in the city, has taken an aggressive approach to emphasizing poverty, which, according to a study released last year by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, is at its highest level in the District in nearly a decade. He has vowed to keep poverty at the forefront of the council’s upcoming budget hearings. Last month, he held a two-day hearing on the issue at which single mothers described their experiences with homelessness and joblessness.

“We’re not going to solve this in a day,” Barry said. “We’re not going to solve it in a year, but we’ve got to begin.”

The city’s statistics, he said, are daunting.

One in five District residents, or 110,000 people, live in poverty, an increase of 27,000 since 1999, the study noted.

Black residents are more than five times more likely to be unemployed than are white residents, the report found.

Barry said 170,000 District residents are considered functionally illiterate. And at Thurgood Marshall Academy, the charter school across the street from the church where the meeting was held, seven in 10 students come to the ninth grade reading on a fifth-grade level, he said.

“That’s tragic,” he said.

Barry and others called for a dramatic shift in the city’s priorities. He criticized spending $25 million to rebuild the Georgetown Library, for example, while more than 40,000 families are on the D.C. Housing Authority waiting list for low-income housing.

Yulonda Queen, a Ward 7 resident for more than 30 years, said the city needs to invest more in literacy programs and vocational schools.

“As long as there are people . . . who do not see an avenue to grow, we’re going to have social and employment issues that will affect our children’s children,” she said.

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), who was in attendance along with council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), said the meeting reinvigorated people.

“Poverty is arguably the most important issue we face in the District,” Gray said. “We’ve lived with the problem so long, you can become callous. We need this catalyst.”

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