The Beauty and Hospitality of God’s Church in Waco

 by Anthony Sytsma

My wife and I moved to Waco in January and we are only living here for one year as she completes an internship. So instead of committing to one church, over the past year we visited a new church in Waco just about every Sunday. We purposely visited churches of different denominations – Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Missionary Alliance, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Cowboy, and non-denominational. We went to large mega churches, small church plants, a church that meets in homes, and a church that meets on the street. We went to mostly Hispanic, mostly black, mostly white churches, and diverse churches.

anthony and saraThroughout these experiences, I was amazed at all the things churches are doing to help their communities. From our visits, we’ve learned and seen that churches are befriending the homeless, generously giving to the poor, taking care of young mothers and their infants, visiting those in jail, giving encouragement to drug addicts, visiting those in hospitals and nursing homes, and putting on vacation Bible schools for children. Many also volunteer their time at local organizations, such as at World Hunger Relief, where we live.

However, this is what struck us the most during our visits. At every single church we went to, we felt very loved and welcomed. No matter how we were dressed, no matter if we were the only ones there with our skin color, we were appreciated. People asked about our lives and listened to our stories. We were invited to other events and meals and were even given gifts. The person I remember best was a little boy who gave me a big smile and hug and said, “We love you.” That made my week.

Waco is full of beautiful, loving, hospitable churches that are eager to love people and get to know new people. So my encouragement to you reading this – you need not be afraid of visiting a church. Get out there and try a new church this next Sunday. It doesn’t seem to matter much which one you pick. My prediction is that you will be surprised at how loving, non-judgmental, and welcoming people will be to you. I believe the reason for this is that Jesus is at work among his people, sinful and imperfect though they are, transforming their hearts so that they can love others, as they have also received love and grace from God.

This week’s Act Locally Waco Blog post was written by Anthony Sytsma. He is at World Hunger Relief with his wife Sara who is an intern here. They are going to Uganda in February with World Renew as missionaries. He will be teaching pastors and she will be doing agricultural development. Thanks, Anthony for this lovely reflection on your time in Waco!

If you would like to write a post for the Act Locally Waco blog, please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org. Thank you!By Anthony Sytsma

 

Understanding the Definition of “Homelessness”

by Phil York

Days ago, Oxford Dictionary accepted the popular term, “selfie” into the canon of the English language. Selfie (the act of extending your own smart phone ahead of you to take a self-portrait) is now part of our daily lexicon and day-to-day reality.

Definitions are important. They allow us to grasp our reality, place labels on items, and understand our world. This blog post will explore some of the definitions of homelessness. If we are to be informed citizens about homelessness laws, programs, and funding we need to understand how this important issue is defined.

Merriam-Webster defines homelessness as “having no place to live”. This simple description probably accurately reflects our common understanding of the issue, but it does not capture the variety of ways a person or family may experience homelessness. If we are going to work toward effective solutions, we need a more in depth understanding.

For example, in 2009, The City of Waco, along with a coalition of nonprofits and civic-minded leaders took steps to define and understand the long-term impact of one particular kind of homelessness, called “chronic homelessness. ” Chronic homelessness tends to be the kind of homelessness that is the most visible on our streets. Between 2008 and 2009, this group developed a report called “Opening Doors, Unlocking Potential: The Mayor’s 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness.” As the basis of this work, they used the federal government’s definition of chronic homelessness which, at that time, was the following: “an unaccompanied individual who has been homeless for a year or more, or has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years, and who may be disabled by addiction, mental illness or other disabilities.” (Note: In that report, the City estimated the cost of the chronically homeless to be $39,000 per year, per individual).

Chronic homelessness, while probably the most visible and the most expensive form of homelessness, is just one piece of the homelessness puzzle. It represents only a small percentage of all the individuals who are defined as “homeless” in our community. The United States Congress in conjunction with a few federal agencies collectively have different, and often overlapping, definitions for homelessness that are quite broad and may include populations we may not immediately recognize as homeless. For example, some people are considered homeless even though they technically have a roof over their head at night, if that roof is only temporary. In 2008 the US Congress defined a homeless person as “an individual who has a primary nighttime residence that is a temporary accommodation for not more than 90 days in the residence of another individual.” This definition includes coach surfers and others who may be housed by friends and family for a period of time.

The definition of homelessness used by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) includes four main categories:

  • Individuals and families that do not have a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence or who resided in an emergency shelter or place not meant for human habitation”.
  • Individuals and families who are on the verge of losing their primary nighttime residence.
  • Unaccompanied youth.
  • Individuals and families who are fleeing or attempting to flee domestic violence or other dangerous life-threatening conditions.

Children are defined by several federal agencies as homeless if they:

  • Live in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camping grounds due to lack of alternative adequate accommodations.
  • Live in emergency or transitional shelters.
  • Await foster care placement.
  • Live in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations or similar settings.
homelessness by age chart

Source: http://www.endhomelessness.org/pages/faqs#youth

All these definitions can make it a challenge to pin down the demographics of homelessness, but according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 46% of the nation’s homeless are younger than the age of 30; 22% are under the age of 18. This large percentage may be why our federal leadership moved to include children as a separate homeless category. Homeless children are a particular concern in Waco. According to recent estimates 1,500 children in WISD are considered homeless. You can imagine how difficult it would be for a child to concentrate on school work while couch surfing or living in a shelter or camping out at a park.

Homelessness affects our social and economic fabric on the national, state and local scale. You may have been surprised to learn how broadly homelessness is defined in our country and that it includes individuals who are technically living under roofs, foster children, substandard housing residents, couch surfers, shelter attendees and those fleeing domestic assault. These definitions become significant on the local level as nonprofits, churches and private organizations work with federal, state and local programs to qualify individuals for homeless programs and services.

Hopefully a more in depth understanding of the definition of homelessness will help you have a little context for what you hear about homelessness on the news or the radio. It’s important for all of us to understand these definitions as we participate as citizens in discussions about budget amendments and policy changes, and especially as we cast our ballots. If you were to take a selfie now, you would capture a more informed Wacoan. I hope to build on our collective knowledge with each blog post.

york_phil2 (2)Phil York, Coordinator of Grants and Contracts at Waco Habitat for Humanity is a self-described “policy nerd;” he is also the Act Locally Waco housing and homelessness policy blogger. You can direct questions to Phil to pyork.law@gmail.com.  Would you be interested in blogging for Act Locally Waco?  If so please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org.

 

Expressing Thanks in Waco

“There is no other virtue like gratitude – none. I’ve never known a person who was grateful who was, at the same time, mean or small or bitter or hurtful. Not when you’re grateful.” – Fred Craddock

Isn’t it wonderful that we have a national holiday for the purpose of giving thanks? I am thankful for the wisdom of our fore-parents for establishing this day. It strikes me as profoundly wise to set aside a time to intentionally focus on giving thanks. I wonder — if they hadn’t done it so long ago — would we have the good sense to do it now? (I feel the same way about free lending libraries…but I digress).

I imagine our great-great-great-great grandparents knew this intuitively, but today we have research evidence that gratitude is good for you. According to the Harvard Mental Health Letter (November, 2011), “Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.” The same article goes on to offer this definition of gratitude, “Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In the process, people usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals — whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.”

Perhaps because thankfulness brings about that “connection to something larger than ourselves,” I find that there is a link between gratitude and generosity. When I take the time to count my blessings, the urge wells up to want to share those blessings with others. I imagine it is the same for you. With that in mind, I offer this short list of things for which I am thankful along with some ideas for sharing those blessings locally.

I am thankful for…

And finally, I am so very grateful for you – the Act Locally Waco Community. You have made my life rich this year. As I scroll back through the Act Locally Waco Facebook log, and browse through the pictures with the Big Orange Frame, I am almost overwhelmed by all the beautiful faces of you, my extraordinary friends and neighbors of every size and age and description – giving of yourselves, enjoying yourselves, or just keeping on keeping on. I appreciate you. I thank you, and I’m thankful for you. God bless Waco!

 

I may be naive, but not about what you may think…

I was having a perfectly good visit with a friend at work. We were sharing dog pictures and yakking and laughing when a passerby derailed our pleasant conversation. He didn’t even stop to chat. He just lobbed in a comment about the column on SNAP benefits I had in the Trib a few weeks ago and then continued innocently on his way.

At the mention of the column, my friend rolled her eyes and said something to the effect of, “I saw your article. You’d have a different attitude about food stamps if you had worked in the place where they hand them out to people.” As it turns out, that had been one of her jobs in her pre-Baylor life and, to put it mildly, the experience had left her skeptical about the whole food stamp system. To put it less mildly — she seemed angry. I could hear the frustration rising in her voice as she described, for example, parents who seemed to have enough money to pay for the cigarettes they were smoking but not enough money to pay for food for their children. She may have been a little surprised when, instead of arguing with her, I asked her to tell me more about her experiences working in the Food Stamp program.

Here’s the thing: I don’t totally disagree with my friend.

It makes me angry and frustrated to hear about people who “waste” their money on cigarettes (or whatever) while taking my money via taxes to pay for food. Just like everybody else in the world, I want to spend as much of my own money as possible on me, or – in an attempt to sound slightly more generous – on my friends and family and interests I care about.

So why do I support a system of government programs that makes me angry and takes money out of my pocket? Well, it’s not because I naively believe there are no problems with it. I know there are people whose children go hungry because their parents trade their food stamps for all kinds of things – from rent to drugs. I know there are people who quit their jobs when their earned income tax check comes and blow the whole thing on X-boxes and tattoos. I know there are “students” who apply for low-interest, subsidized, student loans and then drop out as soon as the check comes with no thought of ever paying it back. I am not blind to any of this, and even though thanks to Bridges out of Poverty training and other interventions I can understand it a little better, I still don’t like it. Like my friend, it frustrates me to the point of anger.

So why then? To tell you the truth, I wonder that myself sometimes. I guess it comes down to a few basic things.

First of all, I think we need something. I am not willing to go 100% “survival of the fittest” in regard to social policy. I can imagine myself falling on hard times or people I love falling on hard times, and I want a safety net to be there. Also, though I know there are problems, I do think we tend to exaggerate them for dramatic effect. It’s just human nature to dwell on and magnify the things that upset us and forget all the times the system works well. Food Stamp fraud, for example, is estimated to amount to about 1 cent on the dollar, not perfect of course, but not all that terrible for a system that serves as many people as ours. I believe it is doing more good than harm.

More foundationally, I subscribe to the philosophy that we are “all better off when we are all better off.” If I sell cars, I am better off if more people can afford to buy them. If I have kids, they are better off if the other kids in their school are not dealing with so many problems that they can’t pay attention in class. My town has better streets if more people have decent jobs and are a paying into the tax coffers. My hospital has more resources to take care of me if fewer people are using the resource-hogging emergency room as their primary source of care. I guess it doesn’t seem to me “the market” has a very good track record of maximizing this general prosperity all on its own. If we want more people to climb the ladder of success, I think we have to give the “invisible hand” a little hand every now and then – enter government programs.

Does that mean I think the current system of food stamps and other government programs is perfect? Absolutely not. Does that mean I think we should just throw money at it with no thought to accountability? Absolutely not. Does that mean I think it’s okay for parents to trade the food stamps that are meant to help feed their children for cigarette money? Absolutely not. Does that mean I’m enthusiastic about donating a chunk of my hard-earned paycheck every month to subsidize people who “don’t want to work.” Absolutely not. In fact, it irks me when I feel like I’m being pressured into some kind of blanket defense of the whole system just because I don’t happen to think we ought to defund it to the point that it has no hope of serving its purpose. And, it irks me the other way when anytime I criticize the system people accuse me of being unjust to poor people. That kind of all or nothing thinking seems counterproductive to me.

There is no doubt some people are bad and take advantage of the system. (I’ll just mention that  happens at the top of the economic pyramid as well as at the bottom.) It may even be the whole thing has some fundamental flaws that need to be addressed. I’m not saying it’s perfect. I am saying I think we need something, and I am saying I don’t think it’s a good idea to deep six what we have without something that looks better on the horizon.

If I am naïve it is not in blindly believing that SNAP or any of our government programs are perfect. It may be in stubbornly believing – despite lots of evidence – that if we set our minds to it, we have the capacity to construct a program of social “scaffolding” that will make it more likely that more of us can achieve financial security and success — and that if we do — we will all be better off for it. I’m okay with being naive about that.

Someone in Lorena Knows How to Raise a Child!

By Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton, Spokesman for Waco Police Department.  This originally appeared on the Waco Police Department Facebook page, and Sgt. Swanton has also graciously shared it with Act Locally Waco. 

Thought I’d share a story that happened last night while doing a part-time gig at the China Spring vs. Lorena Football game.

A little girl from Lorena, bout 7-8 years old walks up and tells me “Thanks officer for your service and keeping us safe!” I have a feeling that this is not the first time she has done that to someone in uniform…Military, EMS, Fire, etc.. as it came too naturally for her to do.

It was obvious to me that her Mom and Dad have made it a point to teach this little one what a lot of the world is missing today…Kindness, respect and an ability to thank others for what many take for granted.

So many times as officers we have parents grab a misbehaving small child and march them over to where we may be and scream at the child “I’ll have this officer put you in jail if you don’t stop (insert whatever behavior and it’s most often absolutely nothing)!! REALLY!!??? What on earth does the parent think this does to what the kiddo thinks about Police? How about making them terrified of us??? That’s exactly what it does. What happens when this child gets lost somewhere? Would you not want the child to feel safe walking up to an officer to ask for help in getting home?

I may never know who you are, but a hearty thanks to the parents of that little Lorena Leopard who is going to grow up to be a beautiful person! Mom and Dad…you are doing a great job!

This week’s Blog was written by Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton, Spokesman for Waco Police Department. (Facebook: WacoPoliceDepartment; Twitter: WacoPolice)

If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco blog, please email AshleyT@actlocallywaco.org.

Why should we care about housing and homelessness?

With this post Act Locally Waco introduces Phil York, Coordinator of Grants and Contracts at Waco Habitat for Humanity. A self-described “policy nerd,” Phil has agreed to a stint as ALW’s housing and homelessness policy blogger. Welcome aboard, Phil! We are looking forward to your insights on this crucial element in making Waco a great place to live for every person of every level of income!

Policy briefings, lobbyist meetings, and picket lines…this is the typical landscape we see and hear in the headlines of Washington. They all seem to be actions from a distant planet with unknown implications on our day-to-day lives. This blog series is designed to make federal housing and homelessness policy less alien and more accessible, and to explain what effect these important policies have on Waco, Texas.

But…why should we care?

york_phil2 (2)In graduate school, I had a professor who asked this question at the end of each student’s graduation thesis. Needless to say this is a question that is so fundamental that it feels like a punch to the gut after you are finished an important speech. But the question is worth asking with any social issue. Wacoans should care about housing and homelessness because of the social and economic impact these issues have in our community.

For example, consider the impact of homelessness on our children and youth. Homelessness is a growing problem among families, particularly families with children. If youth are subject to homelessness they are also subject to health hazards that are easily acquired by living on the streets such as communicable diseases . Also, children experiencing homelessness are four times more likely to show delayed development and twice as likely to have learning disabilities as non-homeless children .

Sadly, Youth are a growing demographic among America’s homeless. Nationwide, homelessness among K-12 age students saw a 10 percent rise from 1,065,794 to 1,168,354 . According to the US Department of Education, the Lone Star state is third among the top 10 states with the number of homeless students. Texas accounts for 94,624 homeless enrolled students; this represents an 11% increase between 2011-2012 .

These children are our future workers and leaders. The current social impact is clear, and we would also be wise to consider the long term economic impact of a future workforce that has not been able to study in a safe environment, a future workforce that is vulnerable to weather and disease. These deprivations during childhood can have a lasting negative impact on a person’s ability to get the education necessary to find a good-paying job. This in turn has a negative impact on the economic health of the whole community.

In addition to this kind of long term social impact, the immediate economic impact of homelessness is clear. A 2007 video produced by the City of Waco shows that the cost per chronically homeless person in Waco is $39,000. Approximately 15% of homeless population is chronically, or persistently, homeless. This 15% of the homeless population uses 50% of homeless services. The total cost of homelessness to our community is estimated at more than $7.6 million. Shelters, emergency rooms, police and correctional facilities are among the tax-funded programs used. One possible approach to this challenge is Permanent Supportive Housing. This kind of housing approach could potentially cut the cost of helping these chronically homeless individuals. Once chronically homeless individuals are housed, this could free up resources to help reduce episodic homelessness.

Affordable housing and a thoughtful approach to homelessness issues will have an impact on the current and future health of Waco. Housing has a direct tie to education, health, and the economic prosperity of our community. We should care about housing because it is critical.

The stakes are high. Familiarity with policies that drive local programs can help us actively participate in the continued improvement of our community.

I look forward to learning with you. Regards, Phil York.

 

High Hopes from a Boring Sentence

On Sunday October 20, on Section B page 1 of the Waco Trib, a few paragraphs deep into a story with the headline, “Poverty Initiative Moving Forward is an innocuous little sentence that made my heart go pitter-pat. Here it is: “The city of Waco recently hired the W.J. Upjohn Institute to come up with a plan to address income and employment in Waco.” Bland as it may seem to you, I hope to be looking back on that statement in a few years cherishing it fondly as a significant milestone in our efforts to reduce the rate of poverty in Waco.

Here is why that boring little sentence sets my heart a-flutter:

Reason #1: It’s a sign we are taking a systemic look at our poverty situation. – We have a high percentage of people in Waco (around 30%) who live in households with very little income – too little to support the basic needs of the household. This has a negative effect on our ability to achieve our potential as a community. While I believe that there may be a huge element of personal behavior involved in why any particular person ends up in that situation, I also believe that when such a high percentage of residents are in that situation it’s time to look at the environment. In other words, when 5% of the fish are dying, you can make the argument that there is something wrong with the fish; when 30% of the fish are dying, it’s time to take a look at the lake. My high hope for this plan we have commissioned from the Upjohn Institute is that it is a sign that we are getting serious about looking at the lake.

Reason #2: It’s a sign that we are committed to using facts to inform our strategy. – One of my favorite concepts from the 2012 Poverty Solutions Steering Committee report is, “Our work together needs to be based on facts rather than speculation.” I understand that facts are not a magic wand and that we must not fall into the trap of “analysis paralysis, ” but I do believe in the power of information. Facts, skillfully collected and wisely considered, will help us make better decisions. According to their project proposal Upjohn intends to gather information about, among other things:

  • Current economic and workforce trends in the city and surrounding areas and their potential impact on Waco,
  • Characteristics of unemployment, underemployment, and nonparticipation in the workforce,
  • The demand by industry for occupations by skill level,
  • Existing training opportunities for the city’s high-demand occupations,
  • the negative economic impact of poverty.

It is not a trivial exercise to collect this information, and I doubt we could do it very expeditiously without bringing in some hired help. I’m excited that this project will afford us the opportunity to, in a relatively short time, build a solid base of information to inform our strategy for moving forward.

Reason #3: I’m glad we are bringing in some outside perspective. – I have a deep respect for the brainpower that the people of Waco, especially our city leadership, have put toward the issue of reducing our rate of poverty, and one thing I particularly respect is that they have recognized the benefit of bringing in some ideas from the wider world. I didn’t know anything about the Upjohn Institute before reading their project proposal, but after reading the proposal and checking out their website, they look like rock stars to me. They have been studying employment and unemployment since 1945. The list of current and recent research projects on their website is long and wide-ranging, and the cities with whom they have worked stretch from coast to coast. I am looking forward to hearing how these years of practice and the expertise born from this experience can benefit us!

So, Welcome to Waco, Upjohn Institute! You can count me as one of your groupies! I’m excited to see you coming. I hope we pick every bit of useful information out of your big brains and put it to good use!

upjohn picIf you would like to learn more about this project, make plans to attend the Greater Waco Education Summit. George A. Erickcek, Senior Regional Analyst for the Upjohn Institute will be the keynote speaker at the dinner on Wednesday night, November 13. Hope to see you there!

Vocalize your Waco Pride!

by Ashley Bean Thornton

(In an earlier post we introduced three big goals for Waco (1) Make Waco a city of opportunity. (2) Make sure pathways to opportunity are clear and well marked. (3) Provide effective support to help more of us keep our footing on the path. In this blog Ashley Thornton explores some ideas regarding goal #1.)  

I’m a Baylor grad, and this weekend, in case you didn’t notice, was Baylor Homecoming. One of my college roommates, Linda, was in town from Dallas. I will confess we had chocolate shakes at Wataburger instead of going to the bonfire and slept too late on Saturday to make it to the parade. When we finally did get up and going Saturday morning, we made our way to the Waco Downtown Farmer’s Market where Linda picked up an eco-friendly necklace for her daughter and a jar of gourmet peach jam for herself. She was slightly bitter towards me because we had already eaten breakfast, so she couldn’t comfortably avail herself of a pumpkin-pecan crepe.

parade pic

We missed the parade (Shhh!), but here’s a random pic from the internet — probably not even this year! Ha!

From the Farmer’s Market we headed to Austin Avenue where we whiled away the rest of the morning laughing and trying on vintage and not so vintage clothes with Brenda Atchison at B Joy Bijoux. After our fashion fun, we were ready for lunch – back to the house for our traditional homecoming feast of Poppa Rollo’s pizza after the parade. (Don’t tell anyone we didn’t actually GO to the parade!) We spent the rest of the afternoon browsing the “Craftapalooza” at the Waco Convention Center where I picked up a few early Christmas presents. We did eventually watch the Baylor game on TV, so I didn’t score a total zero as a proud alum (Sic’em Bears!), even so, the weekend turned out to be more about Waco than about Baylor. 

My point is this: I don’t know when I have spent a more pleasant day in any city in Texas. To be sure, part of the pleasure was the good company of a good friend. But a big part of the pleasure was Waco itself. I am proud of Waco, proud to show it off to my friends, proud to invite people to visit, proud to brag about how much fun I have living here.

“Well, I’m glad you had a nice homecoming, Ashley,” you may be thinking, “but what does that have to do with the price of tea in … well…anywhere?”

As was discussed in an earlier post, one of the things we must do if we want to reduce our rate of poverty in Waco is to make Waco a city of opportunity – a city with good jobs that pay well. In other words we must energize the whole Waco economy. Understatement alert: There are a lot of pieces to that puzzle.

Some of the pieces have to do with recruiting employers, growing our cluster industries, increasing wages and strengthening our workforce pipeline — things which, frankly, I often feel are outside of my sphere of influence as a plain old Waco citizen.

Some of the pieces, however, have to do with making sure that people recognize Waco as the kind of city where they want to live, the kind of community where they might want to start businesses, the kind of city a young person might want to stay in (or return to) after she finishes her education. That is exactly the kind of city my college roommate and I experienced on this lovely homecoming Saturday, and I don’t mind telling people about it.  Making sure that people (at least the people I know)  recognize that Waco is a great place to live is well within my sphere of influence — yours too. It is a part we can all play in building up Waco.

We can all make sure our friends, visitors, relatives, acquaintances, and students know what a terrific place Waco already is — and we can express our confidence that the future is even brighter. Every now and then I am in the company of someone who has fallen into the unfortunate habit of complaining about Waco or talking wistfully about other cities where they would like to live. I am trying to get in the habit of (mostly) gently challenging those complaints instead of letting them pass. Yes, we still have some work to do – but my gosh! Look around you! If you can’t find enough good things about Waco to make you proud of what is happening here, you are not paying attention!

Just the other day while enjoying my first Hot Chocolate of the season at Dichotomy Coffee and Spirits downtown (another terrific new place to show off), I had a great conversation with a new friend. He mentioned that his brother-in-law was a Baylor student who stayed in Waco and started a business. Now the business is thriving and not only are he and his family still here in town, but his parents have moved to town to help run it — more’s the better for the Waco economy!  That’s just one example, but it is indicative of the kind of upward movement that can take place when people recognize the potential of Waco and decide they want to be a part of that potential.

I wonder how that Baylor student came to know that Waco was a great place to live, a place where he might want to settle and start a business? Maybe someone just told him. Maybe some proud Wacoan introduced him to the best breakfast tacos in town and bragged a little about all the things to love in Waco. Be that person! Vocalize your Waco pride!

Favorable Conditions for People to Advance

by Jodi Stacey, Community Activist and organizer of the Low Income Families in Transition (L.I.F.T) workshop at First Baptist Church Waco.

In last week’s blog we introduced three big goals for Waco (1) Make Waco a city of opportunity. (2) Make sure pathways to opportunity are clear and well marked. (3) Provide effective support to help more of us keep our footing on the path. In this blog Ms. Stacey explores some ideas regarding goal #2.

Many of the people we serve are uneducated, undereducated, and/or lacking in technical skills. This has led to a shortage of career opportunities for them. They are most often unemployed or underemployed. The issue of a lack of education is often omitted during client consultations; yet, our clients’ problems for which they are seeking help are inextricably tied to their income and income earning potential. A simple example in the poverty law setting is a client who is a single mom facing an eviction from her apartment for failure to pay rent. Her hours were reduced to less than 30 hours per week at her $7.25/hour job, leaving her unable to pay her rent this month or in the future. We discuss her eviction rights and housing options, but do not discuss why her hours were reduced; whether she would like a referral to a nonprofit for job search, resume, and interviewing assistance; and whether she has thought about a certification or two-year degree at a local community college to start a career and how that goal might be accomplished.

We often provide services and guidance without a full picture of the human potential sitting in front of us and without an assessment of options available to them to improve their economic outcome in the future. The same clients return time and time again, and we wonder why. Why aren’t they doing anything differently to change their future? My question is whether we, as a community of people striving to help others, are doing anything differently to create the conditions that are favorable for people to advance themselves? Are we in agreement that a high school diploma or GED is insufficient to obtain employment with a sustainable wage and that higher education (at any level) provides the best chance to open the doors to careers with sustainable wages? If so, are we open and honest with our clients about this issue?

We, as social service providers, churches, school districts, community colleges, universities, and the business community, must be closely networked to develop clear paths to prosperity – “Career Pathways.” These paths must be so well developed and articulated in the community that people want to come back to education because they are convinced that careers and better jobs are within their reach. We can work together to align social services and funding to remove the most difficult barriers to education for working poor, first generation, and at-risk students so that they can enter college and graduate with a certificate, 2-year degree, or 4-year degree.

ACPfinalcover2I encourage you to read The Career Pathways Effect: Linking Education and Economic Prosperity, a joint publication of CORD and NASDCTEc, as well as Adult Career Pathways: Providing a Second Chance in Public Education (second edition 2011), by Richard Hinckley, Debra Mills, and Hope Cotner. These books provide a great place to begin a community conversation. CORD stands for the Center for Occupational Research and Development and is located at 4901 Bosque Blvd. in Waco. The President and CEO of CORD is Richard Hinckley. I read these books after moving to Colorado, and they have greatly influenced how I view community strategic planning and the importance of creating clear “Career Pathways” for high school students preparing for their future and for adults coming back to education so that they can achieve their goal of greater economic stability.

This week’s blog post was by Jodi Stacey.  If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco blog, please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org.

A long way to go…but we may be making progress

by Ashley Bean Thornton

A few weeks ago Jimmy Dorrell graciously invited me to give a short, 5-minute, talk as a part of the annual Walk for the Homeless in downtown Waco. What looked to me like a few hundred people came out that beautiful Sunday morning to learn and to show their compassion and support for our homeless neighbors. My part was tiny – to give a little information about the “big picture” regarding poverty in Waco. I didn’t write down my talk word for word, but the following is basically the message I tried to get across. I hope to use this blog in the next few weeks to explore the ideas presented below in more detail…won’t you join the conversation?

Waco is a community with tremendous assets: our location on I-35 half way between Dallas and Austin, the river, Cameron Park, numerous higher education opportunities…the list of good things about Waco goes on and on. We are already a really good place to live, and we have the potential to be one of the best places to live in Texas if not the country.

If we are going to capitalize on that potential, however, we must build a wider base of financial stability among our residents. More of us need to be making enough money to support ourselves and our families and to have a little extra to make investments in our community. Financial stability among our individual residents and families is what leads to building up our tax base and our overall spending, which in turn builds up the livability of our community, and will put us on an upward spiral toward becoming an ever better place to live for every person of every level of income.

With that end in mind, the message today is … yes, we have a long way to go, but it looks like we are making progress. The new American Community Survey results regarding poverty in 2012 were released by the U.S. Census Bureau in mid-September. I don’t want to make too big of a deal about these figures because they are based on only a one-year sample of survey respondents instead of the 5-year samples Act Locally Waco usually uses when reporting poverty rates, but bearing that caveat in mind, I see some reason to feel encouraged.

Waco’s poverty rate for 2012 was estimated at 27%. Yes, this is still much higher than the Texas rate of 18% and the U.S.A. rate of 16%. On the positive side, however, this same survey in 2011 estimated our rate of poverty at 32%. In comparison, a rate of 27% is headed in the right direction. Another positive indicator is that the gap between Waco and Texas may be narrowing. In 2011 Waco’s poverty was estimated at 32% while the estimate for the state was around 18%, putting our poverty rate at 14 percentage points higher than the state. In 2012 the gap was only 9 or 10 percentage points depending on how you round it. (Our gap with the U.S. was 17 or 18 points in 2011 and is estimated at 11 or 12 for 2012.)

If this improvement becomes a trend in the course of the next few years, that will be great news for Waco: what do we need to do to keep the wheel turning the right way?

The following are three broad goals that may help to frame that conversation:

Make Waco a city of opportunity! – Attract, entice, lure, nurture, incubate, develop…whatever the right verb is…businesses and other enterprises that generate good paying jobs.

Make sure the pathways to opportunity are clear and well-marked, particularly for those of us who are living in low-income situations right now. – This has to do with education in the broadest sense from birth through adulthood. It also includes the often overlooked component of educating schools, employers and other institutions about how best to work with residents who are coming to them from low-income or extremely low-income situations.

Provide effective support to help more of us keep our footing on the path. – The path from poverty to financial stability can be a treacherous, discouraging obstacle course for some. Well aligned, supportive, health services, social services and ministries help people to stay on the path making progress.

These are admittedly broad goals, but perhaps they can help give a little shape to our work together. In the next few weeks I hope to use this blog to explore various elements of each of them and to think a little bit about how each of us might play a part in accomplishing them. What ideas do you have? I’d love to hear from you and even publish some of your ideas in this blog.

Meanwhile, this is an exciting time in Waco. If you haven’t found your niche yet as far as how to get involved, this is a great time to do it. Check out the rest of the Act Locally Waco website – you’ll find lots of ideas about how you can be a part of making Waco a great place to live for every person of every level of income.