Bell asks for ‘foot soldiers’ in anti-poverty campaign

jwise@newsobserver.comMarch 19, 2014 

— Mayor Bill Bell opened his campaign to fight poverty “neighborhood by neighborhood” Wednesday, picking the neighborhood to begin with and calling for volunteers to join in.

Bell invited public officials, business people and community activists to breakfast at the Durham Rescue Mission to “help begin the development of a plan,” after setting poverty reduction as the city’s top priority in his State of the City speech in February.

“We’re going to need some foot soldiers,” he said, asking those in the audience to sign up for task forces on jobs, health, housing, education and public safety, to research and set “benchmarks” in each area, with a follow-up meeting in about three weeks.

“The end goal is to end poverty, but to do anything you’ve got to do first steps,” he said.

Of about 100 in the audience, 66 signed up for the task forces. Their starting neighborhood is U.S. Census tract 10.01, an area east of downtown where more than 61 percent of the 3,466 residents live in poverty and the median household income is $22,585 a year.

According to census data, more than 44,000 of Durham’s 230,000 residents are impoverished. Tract 10.01 is one of eight in Durham that qualify as “distressed” by standards UNC-Chapel Hill researchers William High and Todd Owen developed for the report, “North Carolina’s Distressed Urban Tracts.”

Those standards are:

•  Unemployment 50 percent or more above the state rate of 9.7 percent;

•  Annual per capita income one-third or more below the state average of $25,256;

•  Poverty rate 50 percent or more above the state rate of 16 percent.

“We’ve got to start somewhere,” Bell said.

Several officials added their own perspectives on Durham poverty. School Board Chairwoman Heidi Carter said 65 percent of children in Durham Public Schools qualify for free or reduced lunches, and Lynwood Best of the city’s Neighborhood Improvement Services department said for some children, school meals are the only food they get.

City Economic Development Director Kevin Dick said one of the task force missions will be finding the true unemployment rates, including people who have quit looking for work and aren’t counted in official jobless statistics.

“When you reflect on what the mayor’s talking about ... what if it was your family, what if it was your child that was standing out on the corner?” said Durham County Sheriff Mike Andrews.

Neighborhood organizer Steve Hopkins said it’s important to avoid the gentrification that has forced many poor residents out of their accustomed neighborhoods.

“We want your help, we need your help but we don’t want to be run out of our homes,” Hopkins said.

“At the end of the day, you need money,” said Wilma Liverpool, who wore a T-shirt reading “Poverty is a weapon of mass destruction.”

“Housing, health care are all wonderful,” Liverpool said after the meeting. “But that’s putting a Band-Aid on poverty.

“Being out of poverty means you have your basic needs met, plus some for emergencies, plus enough to invest for the future,” she said.

Wise: 919-641-5895

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