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BIG CITY: Scenes from a poverty tour – Part I

Kirk Ross

On this trip, truth was much easier to find than hope. The bus carrying participants in the NAACP-sponsored Truth and Hope Tour of Poverty in North Carolina took us to places where you’d have to try pretty hard to ignore what a struggle it is to survive. The tour’s dozen or so stops scattered along a loop of our northeastern counties are places with long-term, crushing, systemic poverty – places that are now reeling hard from the effects of the Great Recession and a safety net too threadbare to hold the weight asked of it. There’s hope to be found, but it’s worn down by generations of trials and the exceptionally cruel downdraft of the past several years.

We have our own poverty challenges here in Orange County, and there are places not far from where you’re reading this where straits are just as desperate. But we have some things going for us here that are in short supply elsewhere. We’ve a plan and we have resources. Of course there are never as many resources as we’d like, but relative to our brothers and sisters out east, we are especially blessed.

The tour wasn’t about resources or programs or even solutions. It was about putting a face on poverty, about reminding us of what happens when the poor become invisible; about what happens when we accept widespread poverty as normal and then something comes along that makes it all far worse that we can imagine.

‘On the Solid Foundation’

A few blocks in from the historic waterfront in Elizabeth City, Tony Rice, pastor of New Beginning United Fellowship Church, waited on the porch steps of New Beginning, a men’s shelter in a modest two-story home. With him was a group of five residents of the shelter along with a few supporters. You wouldn’t know it was a shelter except for the sign in front, which includes the house slogan “On the Solid Foundation.”

Rice used to work in corrections. He said almost all of the prisoners he met wouldn’t have done what they did if they’d had food to eat, clothes on their backs and a place to call home.

“Poverty,” he said, “is a poison.”

Inside, the group had just finished dinner and the house smelled of food. Behind the dinner table was a handmade poster showing the barriers each ex-con faces and the two roads ahead – one to a better life (Restoration Drive) and one back to incarceration (Familiar Lane). The better life is defined like this: “Employed, Drug Free, Restored Self Esteem, Restored Family Relationship, Positive Outlook on Life.”

As we walked through the place, a neighbor stopped by to assure us the place was well kept and the residents well behaved.

At the first stop in each county we’d get a fact sheet from the N.C. Justice Center with the area’s poverty statistics. The tour’s focus was on faces and not statistics, yet each time you read one was like a kick in the gut. In Pasquotank County, 23 percent of the people are living below the federal poverty line of $22,314 for a family of four. Unemployment in Elizabeth City is around 15 percent on average and even greater if you’re black or Latino. Rice told us that if you have a record, particularly a felony conviction, it’s nearly impossible to find work.
From the porch of New Beginning, the men who lived there talked of losing families, fighting addiction and hopelessness and finding almost nowhere to turn even when they wanted to rise above life in the shadows. The tour wasn’t supposed to be about numbers, but Rice relayed some too piercing to ignore.

Seven people were housed at the shelter – seven, out of an estimated 1,000 homeless people in the area, who found somewhere to go to start a better life.

“I turn away 15 to 20 guys a night,” Rice said. New Beginning is the only men’s shelter for 100 miles.

Rice is a big man, a veteran who served in the 82nd Airborne. He said when he got out of the service, he soon realized how much Elizabeth City had deteriorated over the past decade. People were going without electricity and living in places not fit to live in.

“I didn’t realize the real war was in my backyard,” he said.

He struggled with what to do.

After discovering that an unemployed bricklayer named Arthur Bonds was sleeping in an abandoned house behind his car lot, Rice said the two struck up a friendship and Rice started checking in on Bonds, who had a variety of ailments.

One day Bonds told Rice he was going to check himself into the hospital for warmth and food. A week went by, Rice said, and no sign of Mr. Bonds.

He finally went up to the abandoned house, and as he started into one room, he saw Bonds’ legs and thought he was sleeping. He wasn’t. He’d died cold and alone.

Rice said he decided then he had to act, and after talking it over with his wife, they converted their rental house into an emergency shelter. It doesn’t house a lot of people, Rice said, but even if it helps one person get their life back, it’s worth it.

“We’ve got to rise up and make a difference,” he said.

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