The little things

Aurora, OH – Cleveland, OH, 19.3 miles

Poverty and homelessness are large problems. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t small things everyone can do to make a difference. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Donate food, toiletries, clothing, and household items to a local shelter, food pantry or organization that benefits those who are homeless or poor. And, beyond just donating your old, worn-out clothing, consider donating items that someone could wear to a job interview.
  • Organize a food drive or walk to benefit organizations that support affordable housing or emergency shelters.
  • Volunteer. Organizations from Habitat for Humanity to your local shelter are in need of volunteers. To help build or fix up houses or shelters, check with your local public housing authority, or find the nearest chapter of Habitat for Humanity visit www.habitat.org
  • Vote. Support elected officials who stand behind affordable housing and a living wage. And support projects in your community that increase access to affordable housing and good jobs.
  • Be aware of local laws that make crimes out of being homeless and take steps to change them. Laws that prevent people from loitering, eating or sleeping in public, sitting in certain areas among other discriminatory laws are detailed in a report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and the National Coalition for the Homeless: Homes Not Handcuffs: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities.
  • Support local businesses. A thriving local economy means more jobs and a solid tax base to fund everything from education and public transportation to subsidized housing and mental health programs.
  • Get involved with a local street newspaper. Street newspapers educate the general public about homelessness while providing people experiencing homelessness with a creative outlet to have their articles, photos, artwork, and poetry published and providing employment opportunities as vendors and writers. To get in touch with the street newspaper nearest you or to get help in establishing a newspaper in your community,  contact the North American Street Newspaper Association, www.nasna.org

Of course there are many other ways large and small that you can make a difference. I know how easy it can be to get caught up in everyday life and forget how important it is to lend a helping hand to others. So take this opportunity to spend even five minutes to do something large or small to help someone in need.

–By Jennifer E. Cooper

Unemployed

rest in Aurora, OH   0.0 miles

For the first time in my life I join the ranks of the unemployed. The paperwork involved is baffling. The hoops I must jump through for an unacceptably-low unemployment check are insulting.

Even in the best of the time jobs are not plentiful in the news industry unless one is willing to pick up and move, often a great distance. It seems an insane waste to require the unemployed to file applications they know will not yield a job, or for a position they are unqualified for or uninterested in accepting. But this is the process.

Sadly I am not alone in this futile job search. Though the official unemployment rate is just below 10 percent, I’ve been informed that the number excludes a great many people. It does not count those who were forced to accept part-time work; who have been unemployed for so long they are no longer eligible for benefits; or are too discouraged to continue looking.

We are a far cry from the 25 percent unemployment experienced during the Great Depression. But even worse than the numbers of unemployed is the fear and despair among those who have a job. Such fear paves the way for worker exploitation and downward pressure on wages. We must remain vigilant that we do not allow competition for limited resources to breed fear.

–By Jennifer E. Cooper

Poverty

Hiram, OH – Aurora, OH, 11.1 miles

Poverty. It’s a word no one likes to hear; nor is it something we want to acknowledge exists in a country as wealthy as the United States. But far too many times when I tell people I’m walking for poverty and homelessness I’m told I need to look no further. “Poverty is right here,” they say.

Others hear only the word homeless. It is easier to digest than poverty. Homeless people are those mentally ill drug addicts loafing on the streets who prefer to live that way. And there are shelters to take care of the problem. If someone doesn’t want to go to a shelter it’s their own fault. A tidy little package for us to feel sympathy, give a few dollars around the holidays, and hide from the fact that the vast majority of people who are homeless found themselves there because they are poor.

No one wants to think that the great pair of shoes or flat screen TV they just bought for a bargain means someone will be paid wages too low to afford a place to live. We do not want to accept that everyone plays a role in poverty. Now I am not suggesting that we forgo having nice things. Many people work hard and deserve to enjoy the fruits of their labor. But many, many other people work hard and have nothing to show for it. Even worse, each day they fall deeper into poverty.

The numbers are staggering. In 2008, 39.8 million people were in poverty, roughly 13 percent of the population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. To be classified as living in poverty in 2008 an individual had to earn $10,991 or less, $21,834 for a family of four.

Some of the poverty in the United States is related to the current economic decline–unemployment hovers just below 10 percent. But most poverty has existed for decades. It has been passed down for generations. Just as wealth gives each future generation a leg up, poverty pushes each generation down. When I was growing up I can remember my parents teaching me how to balance a checkbook, apply for a my first job, get a driver’s license and, most importantly, how to stand on my own two feet. Those trapped in generational poverty do not have these skills. They were not taught by their parents or at school how to thrive as an adult, nor given any opportunities. Nor were their parents taught these skills so that the knowledge could be passed down. They were not taught how to be self-sufficient, nor did anyone encourage them to dream big or to expect a better future.

Of course it need not be this way. There is no reason for large segments of those living in this country to be destitute. All it takes is a few people dedicated to making things better. In every community where there are houses falling down, or businesses boarded up there are also those who plant flower gardens and take pride in their homes and businesses and encourage their children to excel. Being poor is no excuse for letting things fall apart around you or license to give up hope. Pulling out of poverty is going to take more than a few flower gardens, and dedicated parents but it is a start. And it is a sign that just as things can fall apart, they can be rebuilt.

–By Jennifer E. Cooper

Walking in their shoes

Braceville, OH – Hiram, OH, 10.8 miles

On more than one occasion on this trip I have been told I do not look like someone on a walk for poverty and homeless. Most days, but by no means all, I have started my morning with a hot shower. I have a computer and cell phone. And I dress more like I am headed to the gym to exercise than to a homeless shelter.

It has been suggested that I try this trip dirty and ill-clothed to see how differently people treat me. But I do not need to forgo showers and wear dirty clothes to know I will be treated badly. It is no secret how we judge people we deem undesirable. I include myself in this–no one wants to spend their time in the company of someone who is filthy and smells like sweat and urine. And I cannot imagine that anyone wants to find themselves in that condition.

I do not need to walk in the shoes of those living in poverty to know their lives are filled with struggle. I do not need to put myself in danger by being ill-clothed, particularly as the weather is getting colder, to know the homeless are living a very precarious existence.

Instead, I hope to inspire people to think about their role in the global community and to take action, no matter how big or small, to improve the living conditions of the more than 37 million in this country living in poverty. We need not walk in someone else’s shoes to understand those living in poverty deserve better.

–By Jennifer E. Cooper