Drowning in a sea of inequality

There are so many wrongs in this world, it is easy to feel paralyzed by the obesity of inequality. Hopelessness attempts to set in as the weight pulls us down. We wonder: if the Mayans are right, what is the point of change?

This year (and this new year of the dragon) I have made a conscious effort to take a different tactic. I will still dream big, still believe it is possible to make the world a better place, but I will take small steps. Just as I have taken many small steps as I’ve walked from Washington, D.C. to Wichita; I will take small steps every day toward change.

And so, this post is what it is: short, sweet, and to the point. Are you ready to start walking? I am.

–Jennifer E. Cooper

No vacation for the homeless

Earlier this week a couple from Florida couch surfed with me for a few days while on a biking trip from Florida to New York. Both had spent a portion of their lives homeless. She lived in her truck for a time while she was in college. He spent much of his childhood on the streets, living as a squatter. So I wasn’t surprised to hear that they were truly roughing it on their trip–often pitching a tent in the woods along the side of a road.

But, after seeing them a week later at a happy hour for Couch Surfing, an international travel group that shares accommodations among its members, I wondered if they were really on vacation, or traveling homeless.

Certainly I would not be surprised to find a few homeless in my travel group. Members of the group, Couchsurfing.org, open up their couches to each other as both a low-cost way to travel and an opportunity for cultural exchange.

“Amy” told me she’d become homeless in college when her situation with her roommate didn’t work out and she consciously decided to live in her truck. Being homeless helped her save money since her family had made it clear to her when she turned 18 that if she wanted to go to college, she was on her own. For a while she got by sleeping in her truck, showering at her gym in the morning before heading to class or to work. But it came to an end when a car smashed into her parked truck.

“Matt” found himself homeless at a young age after the family that adopted him decided to move and left him behind. As he’d already been paying rent to the family–he earned money at the age of 8 bagging groceries–he just decided to live on the streets. Eventually Matt helped organize squatters and several homeless shelters.

After spending two days with me they told me they were staying with a friend in the northern suburbs of D.C., and then biking onward towards New York City. Learning that they were still in the area made me realize their trip wasn’t vacation, they were just doing what they could to get by, living on the edge of their means.

–by Jennifer E. Cooper

You’ve seen one hood, you’ve seen them all

I am perhaps the only tourist who intentionally seeks out the “bad” neighborhoods in each place I visit. I’ve been through the worst parts of Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Cleveland, Gary and Detroit. I’ve walked through all the wrong parts of Chicago, Springfield, East St. Louis, St. Louis and Kansas City.

And, as I walked through what was perhaps the “hood-lite” of Kansas City, I realized that the sight of boarded up houses, trash-strewn streets, drug dealers loitering on the corner, and shuttered business districts no longer leaves an impression. The poor neighborhoods and decaying industrial zones of the cities and towns I’ve visited are all beginning to blend. For sure each place has it’s own character, its own reasons for falling into decline, but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that they are abandoned and broken communities, and that they need a concerted effort on the part of the entire community to make them whole again.

Of course turning around a city in decline is no small undertaking. It takes time to encourage business development and create jobs. Failing schools need funding and skilled teachers. Cities that are losing population need to decide to either contract or develop a plan to attract new residents. And it requires the political strength from city leaders to not be swayed by special interests and cries of NIMBY.

But it can be done. Places like Flint, Mich., have taken dramatic steps towards revitalization–including bulldozing large portions of the city and returning them to parkland. Cities like Little Rock, Indianapolis and Toledo, among others, are following suit.

That said, simply redeveloping a neighborhood is not a solution either. Often redeveloped communities tend to seek higher-income residents, forcing those who had lived in the low-income neighborhoods into other lo-income parts of the city or on the street. While visiting Detroit, an acquaintance told me about the problems of the redevelopment along the city’s Cass Corridor. High-end condos and rotting homes are plentiful–more modest homes for the middle class are largely absent. Merely relocating the poor is unacceptable.

Understandably higher priced homes mean more money for the tax base. But a vacant and pretty home is just as useless to a community as one that is vacant and dilapidated. A thriving community is one that takes into consideration the needs and contributthose at all income brackets.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

Human powered

Columbia, MO – Rocheport, MO 12.4 miles

Now I will be the first to admit that walking as a means of transportation is overrated. And biking is only marginally better. But there is a time and place for human-powered means of transportation. Within towns and cities, both walking and biking are great ways to reduce vehicular congestion and pollution, get some exercise and meet your neighbors.

In recent years, Columbia has experienced a substantial shift towards human-powered transportation in large part thanks to former Mayor Darwin Hindman. According to an article in the Columbia Daily Tribune, during his time in office, the city secured more than $22 million in federal grants to make the city more bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly. He was also a major supporter of the creation of the cross-state Katy Trail State Park, which I walked from Columbia to Rocheport.

The city also has an annual Bike, Walk and Wheel week sponsored by PedNet, which advocates for better facilities for walking, biking, and wheeling, and works to help people shift to non-motorized transportation. Certainly large parts of Columbia are easily navigated by foot and though I cannot speak for getting around town on bike, I don’t doubt that the city is bike friendly.

Unfortunately, as I walked along the Katy trail from Columbia to Rocheport today I realized what a luxury it can be to be free from motorized transportation. As nice as it can be to walk or bike, cars are faster and we live in a society where time is money. It is not easy to justify spending an hour to walk three miles to work or run errands when it would take perhaps 10 minutes by car. But that doesn’t mean we cannot sometimes decide to leave the car behind and enjoy life at a slower pace.

By Jennifer E. Cooper

Support mom and pop

Mineola, MO – Kingdom City, MO 22.7 miles

Stopped in for lunch at Marlene’s restaurant at Crane’s Museum in Williamsburg, MO and discovered that not only do they have great food and an interesting collection of regional history, but Marlene writes the town’s monthly newletter. Yet another reason to support local businesses.

Check it out:

http://www.the350project.net/home.html

Scratching at the surface

rest in St Louis, MO 0.0 miles

When it comes to breaking out of the cycle of poverty, so many times it is suggested that education is the key. But teachers can only do so much. As one middle school teacher I had the privilege to meet today described it, they are just scratching at the surface.

A sixth-grade math teacher at one of the city’s struggling public schools, Steve talked about the challenges, and the rewards, of the two years he’s taught in St Louis. So many of his students are grade levels behind, are clueless when it comes to basic life skills, have behavioral problems or live in unstable homes.

That is not to say students aren’t learning. He told me that during the course of the year many students make great strides. Unfortunately, going from a third-grade to a fifth-grade math level still leaves them unprepared for entering the seventh grade. Teaching is a constant uphill battle.

“I never thought I’d have to physically restrain a student,” he said. Frequently he had to handcuff one student with behavioral problems until the student was able to calm down. On one occasion the student slammed a door, breaking the glass and accidentally cutting Steve’s arm–a scar from the incident is clearly visible on his forearm.

And it was heartbreaking to hear how unprepared many of his students are, not just in their formal education, but in regards to the basic knowledge children must learn as they grow into adults. Though his students are street smart, he’s had to sit down with more than a few students and explain the basics of hygiene; that they need to shower or wear deodorant; that other students are avoiding them because their body odor is offensive. Most are equally in the dark when it comes to their bodies and sex.

Teachers in Missouri are not allowed to discuss anything but abstinence with students when it comes to the topic of sex. But, when you know your students are sexually active, and that their older siblings are having babies, what is a teacher to do? In an ideal world, children would not be having sex or becoming parents. He and another teacher at the school have found creative ways to get their students the information they need about sex, STDs, and birth control.

Meeting Steve was both inspiring and depressing. I was impressed by his dedication, his compassion, and his strength in teaching students whose needs are so great. Beyond just being a teacher, he is a role model, a parent figure, a friend. But, if teachers as dedicated as Steve are merely scratching at the surface, surely we need a better way. Students, teachers and schools are not failing. Instead, we are failing as a society, as a community, to provide our children with the tools they need to become independent adults.

–by Jennifer E. Cooper

Get out and start walking

At least once a day when I tell people where I’m walking I’m told, “I could barely walk here from the parking lot.” If Michelle Obama accomplishes just one thing as first lady, I hope she encourages the nation to finally address it’s epidemic levels of obesity and increasingly stagnant lifestyle.

Falling to pieces

Pontiac, IL – Chenoa, IL 11.6 miles

The town of Chenoa is falling to pieces. I do not mean this in a figurative sense. A stroll through the downtown reveals nothing but shuttered businesses, closed signs, and buildings literally falling to the ground. One building in the center of town quite spectacularly has its back end exposed to the elements–the rear of the building one day suddenly gave way and it has been roped off ever since.

While eating lunch at the Chenoa Family Restaurant today, one of the few remaining businesses in town, a local couple told me that efforts to revitalize the town have hit roadblocks. When the owner of the little grocery store went bankrupt and closed the store there was an attempt to reopen the business. Unfortunately, complications in ownership and existing debt, among other issues, made it prohibitively expensive. And so it sits vacant.

Now the hope is that a building in the center of town can be converted into a coffee shop, but there is more talk than action. I told the couple that sometimes all it takes is for one business to get going and others will follow. Though Aliquippa, just north of Pittsburgh, faces many more problems than Chenoa, the opening of a coffee shop that serves as a community gathering space prompted other shops to follow suit. Don’t get caught up in the details I told them, just get it opened.

Pulling off I-55 or the old Route 66, visitors are greeted with a sign proclaiming Chenoa is the “crossroads of opportunity.” And the sign is certainly correct. Chenoa has everything going for it–both the interstate and the historic Route 66, with its flow of tourists, are less than a mile from downtown. And all the bones for a thriving downtown are there. Yet, save for a sad little bar, a hotel, a gas station, and the restaurant, the town has missed these opportunities.

As I walked down Route 66 I passed more than a few crumbling downtowns, each with a grain elevator and perhaps a post office or a church, maybe one lonely bar or restaurant.

I cannot say why so many small towns are crumbling, falling to pieces. Nor do I know the exact solution. I need only look at the small town I grew up in to see that once stores close they so rarely reopen. At one time my little hometown had a grocery store, a pharmacy, a barber shop, a meat market, and ice cream parlor, a diner, two pizza shops and a hardware store. More than half of the shops are now closed, and even the library that was once downtown has been relocated.

But, while revitalizing a city can take a massive community effort, small towns do not suffer this problem. Small steps forward can lead to big improvements. Next time I visit Chenoa I hope to see a different downtown.

–By Jennifer E. Cooper

Walking is not a crime

Dwight, IL – Pontiac, IL   19.9 miles

For the second time in my cross-country journey I have found myself interrogated by police simply for being a person with a backpack.

Now I have no problem with a police officer asking me if I am OK. There was just a tornado in Dwight, the location from which I’d come, and certainly there are not a lot of people walking. And I am used to explaining to people that I do not need a ride, that I am intentionally walking. But, I fail to understand how simply walking down Old Route 66 justified the police officer to turn on the squad car’s lights and pull me over.

There is a lot of talk about this being a free country. For sure we have more freedom than most places in this world. Yet, I don’t find it so free to be required to show a police officer identification–and not just show it to them, but to allow them to run your name through their database to ensure you have no outstanding warrants.

Standing on the side of the road, with a thunderstorm approaching in the distance, my options flashed through my mind. I could stand by my morals, refuse on the grounds that it violated my civil rights, and risk arrest, or I could provide my ID and feel like a sellout, but avoid arrest and hopefully stay ahead of the storm. Under similar circumstances in Greensburg, Pa., I allowed myself to be arrested rather than provide police with identification–in that case I refused to tell police my date of birth and was put in the back of a squad car, taken to the police station and charged with disorderly conduct as a result. (And yes, the charge stuck as the judge refused to change the court date to a time I could be present so I was found guilty in absentia.)

In the end I provided my identification but made it more than clear to the officer that I found her request highly objectionable and a violation of my rights. I told her I was only providing my ID, “because you asked nice.”

“I have a right to ask,” the officer said. Her excuse was that a couple weeks earlier a homeless woman had been walking down the road. Apparently the woman had a master’s degree. “I don’t know why she didn’t just get a job in her field,” the officer said.

I don’t know what was most objectionable. It was bad enough that the officer found it OK not only to assume that the homeless woman was guilty of some crime, but that since I was also walking down the road I might be homeless and guilty of some crime. But it was difficult to comprehend how the officer could be so naive about unemployment. I’m quite certain the homeless woman would have loved to get a job in her field–now why didn’t she think of that.

Perhaps the officer was accustomed to only seeing people at their worst. But far too often the poor and the homeless are victims of harassment. A joint report by the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, Homes Not Handcuffs: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities, found that cities across the country target the homeless by creating laws that make it illegal to perform life-sustaining activities in public, ranging from loitering or eating in public to sitting in certain locations and begging. And apparently walking, if you appear to be homeless that is, could also be a highly suspicious act worthy of police scrutiny. The moral of the story is that, if you are going to be poor or homeless, it’s best to have wheels.

As I continued down Route 66, and the squad car pulled away, I found myself increasingly angry. Never before this journey have I had any such interactions with the police. The police had won today. But I vowed to continue the battle another day.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper