By Brett Mohar
As a former reporter and photojournalist covering the three poorest and most ethnically diverse counties in Colorado, I have done my share of public interest articles. However, doing the story on Fare & Square in Chester, Pennsylvania was by far the most challenging for me to write because of the what happened while I was walking back to the subway from the store.
I was well-aware of the danger of being in Chester after dark and arrived there around 4 p.m. thinking that I would be able to do the story in a few hours and be back on the train by dusk. Because of the hospitality and enthusiasm of everyone I talked to at the store I didn’t end up leaving until close to 8 p.m. I had a bad feeling when I left with my backpack full of camera equipment.
During the 5 minute walk to the subway station I heard the sound of footsteps pounding behind me and before I was able to turn around I was hit twice in the back of the head. When I did turn around I was confronted by a young man who demanded that I give him my bag.
I was enraged and when I refused, the young man started walking backwards and then I saw two other young men jump from behind a set of shrubs and sprint towards me to join the ambush. Looking back, I don’t think they had anticipated a confrontation because it turned to total chaos. After dodging what seemed like fifty punches I managed to work my way into the middle of the street and they all sprinted away empty-handed.
For several days following the confrontation I was extremely conflicted in writing the story. To make matters worse, I had a major neck and shoulder surgery several years ago due to an injury I sustained during a wrestling match in high school and a few weeks before doing the story, the symptoms came back and it is still unclear whether I will need another operation. Because of being hit in the back of my neck and head it made my symptoms much worse and I had to write the story standing up and in small increments because of the pain and numbness from maintaining the same posture for any extended period of time. The discomfort served as a constant reminder of what took place in Chester that night. How could I possibly advocate for the people of such an impoverished community after being attacked by the people I was supposed to advocate for?
After putting a great deal of thought into it, I finally concluded that the incident was exactly why I needed to write the story. I now realize that the attempted mugging was a direct result of the poverty and conditions in Chester and Fare & Square is a huge step towards drastically improving those conditions.
I met so many great people while doing the story that are dedicated to making the city better and have a great deal of pride in their city. I now understand that I would be doing each one of them a great injustice by not telling their story.
I also adamantly believe that the Fare & Square business model can and will be reproduced in many more economically-challenged cities across the country and I have no doubt that they will succeed as long as the dedication and resilience of the people in those cities are even close to that of the many amazing people in Chester.
By Bett Mohar
The nation’s first non-profit grocery store recently opened its doors in the struggling community of Chester, Pennsylvania.
Fare & Square has a goal of providing the city’s 35,000 residents with a place to purchase healthy, locally-produced food. The town, a former shipyard and auto-manufacturing hub, had been without a grocery store for more than a decade.
Along with affordable fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy products, the bright new store has brought a measure of hope to the small city since its grand opening in September, say patrons and employees.
And its business model has the potential to eventually be replicated in other poor communities throughout the country, some say.
“We came to the realization that people in economically-challenged communities have a burning desire for normalcy and they want access to food like all other Americans,” said Bill Clark, who is president and executive director of Philabundance, a nonprofit hunger-relief organization, who came up with the idea for the store seven years ago.
”Getting food to the poor is the same model as getting food to the wealthy.”
But Clark found some powerful nonprofit and government backers, including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, to help fund the $7 million project.
Chester, located in the Delaware Valley, had been designated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) as a food desert: an area where a substantial share of residents lack access to grocery stores other sources of healthy, affordable food.
It is a lack felt in many places, particularly in low-income neighborhoods. In Washington, D.C. for instance, only a small handful of the city’s roughly 40 full-service grocery stores serve Wards 4, 7 and 8. The USDA estimates that about 13.5 million Americans live in food deserts nationwide..
“Food deserts are one of the most pervasive problems plaguing cities across the country and are a large, troublesome and growing phenomenon,” said Clark. “Once we identified the areas of greatest need in the Delaware Valley, it was a meeting with congressman Bob Brady that spurred us to select Chester as the site of the nation’s first non-profit grocery store. Chester has been without a grocery store for far too long, and we are so proud to bring the first grocery store to Chester.”
The ramifications of living in an area without access to a healthy food source negatively impacts nearly all aspects of the community as a whole. Clark said he hoped bringing a grocery store to Chester would be a major and necessary step in improving the health and living conditions for the community.
The store, which boasts produce, seafood, deli, dairy and frozen food departments, accepts Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits which are known as food stamps. And while anyone can shop at the store, low-income shoppers receive special benefits.
A store program called the “Carrot Club” provides members with a variety of promotions and discounts. Members whose household incomes are at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level receive seven percent credit on their purchases in the form of “Carrot Cash” which can be used towards future store purchases.
Clark emphasized the fact that he did not want to give food away.
“What we want to do is treat our clients with the respect and dignity of a customer and not a charity case.”
Prior to September, Chester residents had little choice in where they shopped or what they ate. They either had to rely upon the narrow choices offered by small convenience stores, travel outside the city to purchase food or take what they were given at the local food bank without having any say in the types of food the received.
“People pay an extremely high price for free food but the cost is not in dollars, it is in self pride and choice,” said Clark.
In addition to providing the community with a place to shop, Fare & Square has also created 82 new jobs and nearly all of its employees live in Chester. To many of its customers and employees, it is also much more than just a place to work and purchase food.
“People in the community are really proud of this store and I’m really proud of this store,” said employee Bakirah Johnson. “In Chester, it’s the talk of the town.”
According to Johnson, store employees handed out apples and oranges to the kids for Halloween and most of the children “had not seen food like that in so long that they didn’t even care about not getting candy. Little things you don’t think of are a big deal.” In fact, she said many of the kids were so excited that they wanted to eat the fruit immediately and Johnson happily obliged, cleaning the fruit upon request and helping them peel dozens of oranges in the process.
The efforts made by Fare & Square to improve the lives of its customers has not gone unnoticed by shoppers. “In the end, it’s all about empowerment,” observed Chester resident Carole Burnett.
As for Clark, he said he hopes the Chester Fare & Square will not remain America’s only non-profit grocery store for long. Food deserts across the country might be transformed by similar efforts, he believes.
“Its been a huge undertaking but if we can figure out how to make this work, it’s a game changer.”
By Mike Rhodes
Street News Service
The City of Fresno followed through on their threats to destroy homeless encampments in the downtown area last month by bringing in bulldozers, garbage trucks and sanitation workers who knocked down and hauled away dozens of shelters. They destroyed the last of the encampments in the downtown area on October 23rd. City spokespersons say they are determined to stop any encampments from reemerging. To accomplish that goal, the Fresno Police Department has established a task force to keep the homeless on the move.
Homeless advocates have responded by calling on the City Council to set up safe and legal places where homeless people can live. They argue that until the City of Fresno has enough housing, homeless people need a place to live that provides basic public services (e.g. drinking water, trash pickup, toilets). City Manager Bruce Rudd told the advocates they should take their complaints to representatives at the County of Fresno. Homeless advocates reminded Rudd that it was the City of Fresno and not the county that was bulldozing the encampments and chasing homeless people from one vacant lot to another.
Most of the homeless living in downtown Fresno seem to be adjusting to the new dictates of City Hall. Many of them sleep on the sidewalks near the Poverello House and the Rescue Mission, get up early in the morning and move on, returning in the evening. Many homeless people have moved to other areas of the downtown area, like the Fulton Mall and Courthouse Park. Homeless women are now more vulnerable to predators who victimize them. Dispersing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of homeless people throughout the city (with no place to go to the bathroom) is unlikely to improve the health and public safety in this community.
There are several groups of homeless advocates that are attempting to improve life and restore dignity and respect to their homeless brothers and sisters who are on the mean streets of Fresno. You can see what they are up to and contact them by visiting www. helpfresnohomeless.org.
Mike Rhodes is the editor of the Community Alliance newspaper. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Cynthia Mewborn
What do segregation and ostracism have to do with homelessness?
I was recently turned away at the door of a coffee shop at the corner of 14th and P Sts NW.
The employee told me his manager said that I couldn’t come in.
The words felt like an assault. They felt like segregation.
I am the same person who visited that coffee shop before I became homeless. Now, due to my attire, my pushcart, my extra bags, I have been turned away.
I ask this: what right does a business have in denying a paying customer based on attire or appearance in receiving services? It was a day when the temperatures were down in the 40s and I simply wanted something hot to drink.
To you business people out there: homeless people are just like you. We have feelings just like you. Yet I am almost sure that you have no idea just how much homeless people have to endure because of cruelty and mean-spiritedness.
It was this same kind of ostracism which thankfully was ended with segregation.
Thank God not every coffee shop out there encourages that kind of cruelty.
I recently visited another shop on L and Vermont Sts NW where the members of the staff were very professional and treated me with respect and dignity and even offered to pay for my coffee.
There was another nearby place where a member of the staff said “there’s no more hot coffee but there plenty of hot food left” and even gave me a free soda after I had explained how I was mistreated at another store.
Regardless of what you think; homeless people are women and men but we are also customers and human beings. The question shouldn’t be whether or not homeless people are welcome into a store but the question should be how can we help you? Learn how to be kind and not nasty; it’s not a good look for your business or for the world. Kindness is key for all who live on this planet! Good Luck!!!!!
By Ramanda Lazaris
According to the International Network of Street Papers, an Australian study indicates that animal therapy could help homeless children. Just within the last year, almost 32,000 cases of abuse, neglect and violence occurred in Australia on children between 0-12 months.
Research has shown that children who experienced traumatic events early in life often develop social, emotional and health problems as they grow up. Recently, researchers at Australia’s Monash Injury Research Institute (MIRI) conducted a study that used animals as therapists to teach these children empathy and coping skills. The study was run by Dr. Neerosh Mudaly, a senior research fellow, who has noted that children who come to the program often do not trust adults and may act out in fear.
The species used in the study, guinea pigs and rabbits, are chosen based on their temperament and health. Groups of up to 10 children attend weekly sessions of 1-1.5 hours where they participate in activities such as animal handling (grooming, comforting), animal care (feeding and observing) and art and photography.
“In the group, the children recognize that they are in charge of a vulnerable being such as a guinea pig,” Dr. Mudaly said. “They learn empathy and control, and often take these lessons back into their own families where perhaps they bullied their more vulnerable younger siblings.”
According to Dr. Mudaly, the next step of the study involves in-depth interviews with children, their supportive parents, caseworkers and teachers.
“This research has the potential to contribute to international knowledge on effective therapy for traumatized children and the prevention of violence,” Dr. Mudaly said.
By Reginald Black
Vendor, Da’ Street Reportin’ Artist
Earlier this year, during the annual city budget deliberations, advocates – including me – got embroiled in a struggle against changes to the city’s Homeless Services Reform Act that we worried would increase homelessness in Washington.
In response to loud opposition, the DC City Council made some important revisions to the amendments. Homeless families that fail to place money in an escrow account will no longer face the risk of losing their beds – though they may face sanctions. And the council entirely eliminated a “provisional shelter” amendment that would have allowed families and individuals to be placed in shelters on a temporary basis while the city determined their eligibility for homeless services. And in what seemed like an acknowledgement of the importance of homeless services, a new position was created in city government; an executive director for the city’s Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH.)
I have been writing for this newspaper and participating in advocacy for the last five years. For the past two years, I have been working under the assumption that no paying job would really fit my current skills. Then the details of the executive director position became public. I got to thinking “this could be me! Why not go for it?” With that, I launched my effort to seek the appointment.
I fully believe that with my experience both as a lifelong resident of Washington and as a homeless person in the city I am the best candidate for the job.
I have planned out my efforts to get the job in phases. During Phase One I emailed the Ward 4 Councilwoman Muriel Bowser in an attempt to get a meeting and while I did not get to meet with the council member herself, I was able to meet with a member of her staff. I had a chance to pass along my resume and cover letter and the meeting made me feel like I was able to engage in a meaningful way. It left me hopeful for more extended conversations with other government officials about the position. Then at a recent ICH meeting held at the 801 East shelter, I was able to hand both the city administrator and the director of the department of human services copies of my resume and cover letter.
With these tasks now completed, I am actively moving toward Phase Two. I ask any readers wishing to help to please do your best to support Reginald Black for Executive Director of the ICH.
By Claire Sloan
Rikea Richardson knew she was truly on her own when she had stayed the maximum allowed time at a shelter and her family did not pick her up. She was 18 years old, stranded in the rain with her luggage.
“It was my time to leave. It was pouring down raining. And I was waiting on my dad to come get me, and he never came and got me,” Richardson said.
Things had been rocky with her family for a while. She started couchsurfing when she was 16, then ended up on the street, wearing a jacket too thin to keep out the cold.
“The first time having to sleep on the street, Lord knows, it was scary,” said Richardson, now 20. These days, she feels safe, thanks to help she received from the Independent Living Program at Sasha Bruce Youthwork, an agency that places at risk youths in safe homes. But she readily acknowledged she would not know how to survive on the street in cold weather. She said that with winter approaching, she fears for any youth without housing.
DC officials say they have a clear cut protocol for keeping homeless and runaway youth safe during the winter months. Yet like Richardson, some youth advocates say that the city’s winter plan for the homeless, approved Nov 12, does not go far enough in addressing immediate or long term needs.
The Homeless Services Reform Act, passed in 2005, guaranteed all homeless people in the District shelter beds on nights when the temperature is below 32 degrees. An annual winter plan, drawn up by city officials and representatives from homeless service organizations, spells out how the city will meet its legal obligation to protect people from freezing conditions. The plan lists bed availability in shelters across the city, describes outreach and intake procedures, and lays out the schedule for a hypothermia shuttle bus system dedicated to getting individual men and women as well as entire families out of the cold.
But until this year, the winter plan did not include a specific section laying out procedures for how to help homeless young people.
In response to requests by youth advocates, a subcommittee of the District’s Interagency Council on Homelessness tackled the job of adding such a section to this year’s winter plan.
The city already had a year-round protocol in place to assess and respond to the needs of unaccompanied young people below the age of 18. When a minor arrives at a homeless program seeking a place to stay, a 24-Hour Runaway and Homeless Youth Hotline is contacted. A staff person from the hotline picks up the youth and conducts a screening and determines whether to contact the minor’s family, provide appropriate shelter, or get a protective agency such as Child and Family Services involved.
But what if the youth truly fears returning to his family, or rejects the help being offered? Child advocates worried that because the protocol does not include a clear cut right to shelter, on a cold night it could end up costing the life of a runaway or homeless youth.
Scott McNeilly of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless worked unsuccessfully to add a few lines to the winter plan making clear that the city’s right to shelter applies to all district residents “including unaccompanied youth,” and if for some reason the protocol for unaccompanied minors does not meet the needs of a particular youth, the District will still “ensure that no homeless youth is in danger of hypothermia this winter.”
That measure was rejected.
Yet District officials say the final wording of the winter plan, which restates the protocol and outlines the availability of beds set aside for homeless youth and young adults, ensures that any homeless young person will be protected from the cold during the coming winter.
“It’s not a perfect solution but it’s better than what we had,” said the city’s Department of Human Services Director, David Berns.
Increased funding will help increase the number of youth beds for the winter, Berns also noted.
“Mayor Vincent C. Gray and the City Council of the District of Columbia have provided an additional $500,000 for the fiscal year 2014 that will be used to expand the availability of crisis beds for unaccompanied children (under age 18) who do not have a safe place to stay,” wrote Berns in an open letter to the community.
The city will provide five emergency beds for unaccompanied youth under the winter plan at Sasha Bruce House, and a sixth bed will be competitively awarded in January, said Maggie Riden, executive director of DC Alliance of Youth Advocates.
Youth advocates said they will continue to work to make sure district agencies become more deeply invested in meeting the needs of homeless and runaway youth this winter and throughout the coming years. When unaddressed, those problems can have lifelong implications, according to Deborah Shore, executive director of Sasha Bruce Youthwork.
“Fifty percent of all chronically homeless adults report being first homeless as a teenager,” said Shore.
In many cases, Sasha Bruce Youthwork staffers attempt to re-unite young homeless people with their families. But in some cases, a family may be too unstable or broken to offer the help a young person’s needs, said Rikea Richardson.
“Family is crazy. You always think they’re there for you. No, not mine,” Richardson said.
There are still things about those hard teen years she cannot figure out. For reasons she may never understand, of the 37 young people in her extended family she was the only one who ended up on the streets.
She counts herself fortunate to have found Sasha Bruce Youthwork and the support system and “family” she needed. At Sasha Bruce, she received employment training, an apartment for 18 months, and a case manager who motivated her to succeed.
She described what it meant: “Hands on staff there for me, interacting with me, getting to know who I am, getting to know what I like, helping me get back in school.”
Richardson graduated from high school in June and plans to be a lawyer. She said she is in the process of finding a new program to transition into until she can pay for her own apartment and a college education.
She said her experience with Sasha Bruce Youthwork changed her perspective on how a family can and should be and she believes that is what other homeless youth need. She said that no homeless youth should be turned away for lack of services.
“I really think that’s unacceptable because it’s so many young kids going through family issues, with themselves, or abuse. They need that support from Bruce House.”
By Gwynette Smith
The National Homelessness Awareness Week is from November 16 to 24. It is sponsored by the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH). The purpose of this week is to give people a chance to understand homelessness and the people who experience it and to encourage discussions about what can be done to end homelessness.
The NCH encourages people to participate if they have these goals. People who are interested in raising awareness about homelessness might invite a homeless or formerly homeless person to speak before their church or community group. They might show a movie or a documentary film to the group and discuss it afterward. During election season, they could host a “candidate challenge” and invite politicians to join them and live on the street for a period of time to increase understanding about the need for laws and policies that would be helpful to those who are homeless.
The NCH organizes such homeless challenges. A guide who is homeless or formerly homeless helps lead a group of up to five participants who experience life on the streets. They dress warmly, carry a piece of ID with them and maybe find a piece of cardboard for a mattress.
Many people have participated in the homeless challenge over the years. The participants are usually high school or college students and they seem to enjoy the opportunity. I have met them on several occasions. They are interested in learning about how homelessness could end. One of the main solutions seem to be affordable housing.
The students usually spend 48 hours living as homeless people. They do not stay in shelters. They dumpster-dive and panhandle. The chaperones carry cigarettes to trade when appropriate. They also bring toiletries and dispense them in the parks to the homeless. These participants seem very eager to take on this challenge additionally, working in shelters and helping to serve food while they are in Washington, DC.
Michael Stoops who directs the program for the NCH is adamant that participants do not ask homeless people personal questions that would be an invasion of their privacy. He told me that while the students usually spend 48 hours on the streets, he is formulating a project with a formerly homeless guide that will give the students a chance to do the challenge for a considerably longer time, at least a week, along with their chaperones. Stoops said that the guide may film a part of the challenge.
The students who have participated often say they hope to go back to their communities and help motivate their leaders to help end homelessness.
By Ramanda Lazaris
Three short films exploring some of life’s most heartbreaking and revealing moments were the focus of a recent evening of conversation hosted by Joseph’s House, a 24-hour hospice for the homeless and dying.
The films, shown Oct 22, were created by poet and filmmaker Nic Askew. The first, “On the Edge of Life and Death,” explored life at Joseph’s House itself. The others looked at the onset of dementia and the death of a child.
Askew got the idea to make a film about Joseph’s House about a year ago when he was speaking at Georgetown University. He met a hospice staff member who told him about the place. Joseph’s House serves about 35 men and women per year with a primary mission to those with late stage AIDS and terminal cancer.
Askew decided to spend the day there and get a feeling for what it was like.
“When I walked up to the steps of Joseph’s House, it was like an immediate sense of belonging,” Askew said. He said he job as a filmmaker was to capture the essence of the place and the people.
“The job is to see people, really see people, beyond what the world may see,” Askew said.
Patricia Wudel, who has run Joseph’s House for the past 15 years, said she felt Askew must have been guided by a higher power to her door. But that is the way things work at Joseph’s House, she said.
“How people come and hear of Joseph’s House will always be a great, great mystery to me,” she said. “I always feel it is God who brings each person through our door.”
Wudel is helped in her work by a staff of nurses, volunteers. The organization’s goal is to ensure that “each person is loved and cared for as family.”
The nonprofit offers this as its statement of purpose:
“At Joseph’s House, all are changed. We believe in love. We nurture and support our volunteers and staff members with as great an intention as we care for our residents. We learn to find a place of rest in the middle of things; just as it is, just as we are.”
The mission appealed to Askew, who is known for traveling the world to make and screen his films. Although all three of the short films shown at the Oct 22 event were deeply serious, Askew said he loves making comedies as well.
At the center, he sees his works as “human portraits,” he said.
“I make films to articulate the experience of these people.”
Askew left a life in the business world to become a poet filmmaker making films of organizations, leaders, corporates, brands, and simply everyday people expressing their pain, joy and life. More of Askew’s work can be found at soulbiographies.com.
“I got an idea, just out of the blue, to make films,” Askew said. “So I stood up and walked to a friend’s house and borrowed his camera and that was that. I’ve done nothing else since.”
He said he hoped “On the Edge of Life and Death,” helped capture the moments he witnessed in his time at Joseph’s House.
“I just hope tonight someone gets the experience of another person,” Askew said.
When he makes these human-portraits Askew likes to turn a last question back to the audience.
As the evening ended, a question remained flickering on the movie screen.
It was this:
“Where is it that you belong?”
By Jenny Gudmundsen
During the whole interview Elizabeth Bryant counts her 80 Street Sense papers to make sure everything is ready for a good weekend. She is soon on her way to her regular spot at Dupont Circle. One can tell that this woman has a unique working spirit by looking at her steady body language and her big smile. She looks determined, and has no problem with giving away answers while she’s counting papers. Her motto is the following: “You have to take chances because you don’t know your outcome.”
Bryant is a woman of many passions. She likes swimming, music, dancing, bowling and skating. Right now she’s not exercising as much as she used to, but she will find a way to get into exercise again, says she. “In the future I will have my own swimming pool and a back yard.” Bryant is also a true foodie. “I don’t like cooking as much as I like eating,” she says smilingly. Her smile has the ability to light an anonymous meeting room.
Bryant was born in Gooseland, Virginia, but considers herself a Washingtonian, since she’s lived in Washington most of her life. Her mother was an alcoholic, whom she met for the first time at the age of nine. “I hated her because she didn’t take care of me,” she says. The lack of caring parents affected her life in an unfortunate way. Bryant has participated in several recovery programs since she was 17.
Despite a rough childhood, she continued to fight and has stayed sober for almost seven years. Bryant says she will continue her positive path toward a brighter future. “I’m very determined. Most people would have just given up, but I don’t want to give up. Today you see prejudice, power among people with money. I see a lot of hatred,” she says, and adds that she does not want to be like that. Bryant gives away a serious look when her eyes look up from the papers. She believes that God makes her strong, in addition to her children and the people from her 12-step program in church.
Bryant has one child who is 30 years old. Tragically, her second daughter was buried four months ago. She died of breast cancer and she had five children. “I love my grandchildren. One of my grandchildren, Arthur, told me he loved me. I melted when he told me, and I said I loved him, too.”
Bryant lives in her own apartment in Southeast D.C. She’s a Christian who goes to Paramount Baptist Church, about three blocks away. She studies at Academy of Hope, a school that provides adult basic education.
She was introduced to Street Sense about four months ago by a man called Herbert.
She finds a sense of purpose at Street Sense, because she’s able to be her own boss.
“Here, I got no boss hanging over me.” Bryant says that she will continue at Street Sense and finish her education in a clear statement.
“And people could’ve lost their previous jobs, but here you can’t judge nobody. Me trying to do something for myself is good,” she says.