Lovesick New Year — beware of ideas!

by Ashley Bean Thornton

I don’t know what made me think of this, except that I guess a New Year is a “commencement” in a way, but a few years ago I read a terrific graduation speech. It was given by law professor Mark Osler to the graduating class of Vanguard College Preparatory Academy here in Waco on May 28, 2010. If I were (for some strange reason) to resolve to read a new graduation speech every day this year, I doubt I would read a better one. Sitting here at Whataburger, three and a half years later, I had to blink away a little tear as I re-read it. Embarrassing! (Google “Osler’s Razor Love and Graduation” if you’d like to read it for yourself.)

In this wonderful speech Dr. Osler urges his young listeners to fall in love – totally, crazy, silly in love – with an idea, a transformative idea, any idea. “It can be about art or politics or almost anything that exists at that point where the mind meets the world,” he exhorts them, “but just let yourself fall in love.” He does go on to warn them that, “Love does funny things to you when you are 19—it will make you stay up all night, it will make you blurt out stupid things, it will make your friends jealous, because you aren’t really the same person when you are in love.”

Waco heart I am here to report this falling-in-love-with-an-idea thing can have the same frightening effects at age 52 as it does at 19, except it’s actually worse because you really should know better, and all your friends know you should know better. And, you really don’t have the energy for it! Embarrassing! 

Yes!  i admit it! It has happened to me. Maybe it’s evidence of a mid-life crisis (Why couldn’t I have fallen for a red convertible?) but, I have fallen unexpectedly head over heels into a late-in-life love affair with, of all things, an idea.  What is this tempting idea that has somehow wormed its way past the stout defenses of age and wisdom and into my heart?

I am intoxicated with the idea that our community of diverse people – old, young, rich, poor, every race, every creed, even different political persuasions – can figure out ways to think together and work together, to overcome serious challenges together (like less than optimal health, income and educational acheivement), and to shape a beautiful future together. 

As predicted by Dr. Osler, this goofy love has made me stay up – well, not ALL NIGHT (Come on now!) – but certainly later than is my custom. It has definitely made me blurt out stupid things numerous times and hopefully also a few smart things, or at least passionately believed things. I don’t know if my friends are jealous, but sometimes, especially when my devotion to this idea seems to be requiring me to sit through lots of meetings or work on a Saturday morning, I am jealous of my pre-love self who didn’t have much better to do than take long walks, read books, and go to movies with Mr. Thornton.

I guess what is different is that when you fall in love in your late teens you expect your beloved idea to be perfect, and for everything to be moonlight, magnolias and mockingbirds (as my friend B. Sharpless would say) and it can be fairly crushing when that turns out not to be the case.  But in your fifties… Oh wait…there’s no difference…it is still painful as all get out when your beloved idea turns out to be much more demanding and disappointing and difficult than it seemed in the first days of blissful infatuation.

Of course overcoming the challenges just makes it that much sweeter when things work out.   That’s how love baits its trap!

It’s terrible really – this falling in love with an idea, derned inconvenient. Maybe it’s just this particular idea that is such a pain in the (ahem!) neck. It’s so elusive, yet so desireable.  Of course it’s not a new idea at all – in many ways it is the original American idea. I am just one of the millions who have fallen for it — some of the most desperately smitten live right here in Waco. None-the-less, It’s terrible. I don’t recommend it – except that I can’t resist it. Can you? I hope not!  it is so much more fun when we are all lovesick together!



Community, Leadership and Recapturing Power

by Ryn Farmer, Community Organizer, Waco Community Development Corporation (Waco CDC)

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens can change world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

At Waco Community Development Corporation (Waco CDC) where I am a Community Organizer, we work to inspire and cultivate healthy neighborhoods. Our Waco neighborhoods are teeming with people who are passionate, willing and ready to become engaged in what is happening in the community. They have the potential to lead positive change in their own neighborhoods.

When people are forced into leadership positions before they are prepared, however, frustrations often result. For example, they may not be effective in raising up other leaders due to lack of confidence in their own abilities. Like most of us, these passionate, willing potential leaders can become more effective with some training in leadership skills.

Up until now, however, it has most often been the case that the people who get chosen to go through leadership development sessions are not necessarily people from the neighborhoods where Waco CDC works, but people who are already in some position of power or connected to a business, institution, or organization. My colleague, Alexis Christensen, and I have been the beneficiaries of some of this leadership training, and we thought, “What would it take for us to pull together all of the tools and resources we have received over the years to create something that could specifically be used to engage the potential leaders we work alongside every day?” At Waco CDC we have always focused on identifying leaders from within the neighborhoods where we work and helping them cultivate their skills and abilities. Alexis and I thought giving this process a name and creating groups of cohorts might further establish and sustain this important work. Thus, Grassroots Leadership Training (or the catchy, “GLT”) was born.

blog pic

First graduating class of GLT:Vickie Calhoun, Tommy Nays, Jeanette Bell

We officially started our GLT program in October, and we are happy to announce the first three graduates! Three community members in East Waco have completed the three-session GLT training program. During the training we covered several topics, including relationships, leadership, power, culture, cultural humility, asset based community development, communication, how to lead a meeting, resolving conflict, communication, and the importance of evaluation/reflection. One participant said, “Although I have had some leadership training, I acquired more skills by attending the Grassroots Leadership Training. We had in-depth conversations that helped me to know more about the people in my community, their concerns and what we can do together within our own neighborhoods.”

The individuals who participate in the GLT receive information that they will be able to use in their communities as they seek to work together. These skills will help them transfer power from “the top” – the traditional leadership structure – and share it with their neighbors so that the people in the community can have an effective voice in what happens within their own neighborhoods and schools. The first cohort of graduates will specifically use the tools and resources from GLT as they work to receive community input and develop a plan of action for the Northeast Riverside neighborhood. As another participant said, “I learned how to become a leader in my community and make a difference. We started coming up with ideas and ways to address things in the community and we will keep moving forward to work together in our neighborhood.”

The next target audience for this program will be parents who have children in school. As parents develop and gain confidence in their leadership skills, they can start working with other parents to be a part of the decision processes that affect their children.

It is vitally important to provide a safe place for potential leaders who live, work and worship in the community to develop their skills and abilities. When they are ready, they are the ones who need to be in the spotlight. When individuals who live in communities that have been oppressed and marginalized start taking action to bring change, hope is restored. They recapture the power that has always been theirs and create an environment that allows others to do the same.

ryn farmerThis Week’s Act Locally Waco Blog post is by Ryn Farmer. Ryn is a Community Organizer at the Waco Community Development Corporation (Waco CDC). Waco CDC helps to inspire and cultivate healthy neighborhoods. They consider a healthy neighborhood to be one that is safe, clean, and diverse; one in which it makes economic sense for people to invest and one where neighbors manage change successfully. If you would be interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco blog, please send an email expressing your interest to [email protected].

What is hunger? How do we understand it?

By Kelsey Scherer

Hunger feels like a strange topic this time of year, doesn’t it? At a time of year when for many of us food is available in abundant – if not excessive – quantities, we can easily lose sight of the fact that this is not the case for all families in our community. Let’s take a moment to remember that today.

What do we even mean when we use the word “hunger?” Bread for the World, a leading international anti-hunger organization, astutely defines it this way: “hunger is a physical manifestation of poverty.” They are not talking about the occasional stomach grumble or the physiological symptom of skipping lunch because we’re too busy. They are talking about the kind of hunger that is the result of on-going need. For this kind of hunger, I prefer the more descriptive term “food insecurity.” Chronic food insecurity – which is defined as uncertain or unstable access to enough healthy food for three meals per day, seven days per week – is a nuanced and complicated issue, and it affects 14.5% of American households. That’s nearly 49 million Americans.

But what does food insecurity look like? How can we identify the people who are experiencing it? Food insecurity takes many forms, and affects different individuals and families in different and far-reaching ways. A participant in a recent focus group at Caritas, a food pantry providing critical assistance to Waco-area families, explained, “Hunger doesn’t really have a face. You can’t tell if someone is hungry by just looking at them.”

I6- Caritas pic couldn’t agree more. There is not a sound or appropriate way to physically assess whether a child or adult is experiencing food insecurity, and there is danger in thinking we can make an assessment of such a complicated issue with one sweeping glance. If we assume that hunger is only experienced by the homeless man we sometimes see downtown, we will fail to understand that it can also impact the single parent in the suburbs who struggles to pay her mortgage and to put a healthy dinner on the table every night, or the two parents who work a combined four jobs but just can’t make ends meet. Even within the small city of Waco, hunger can look different from block to block. To more fully understand how food insecurity is impacting our neighbors we must move beyond assumptions and stereotypes.

We don’t necessarily know who is hungry, why they are facing food insecurity, or even the best ways to help. With that in mind, it is critically important that we approach our neighbors with a posture of humility and grace when we seek to problem-solve. When poverty-fighters approach people facing food insecurity as teachers from whom we have much to learn and who are experts on their own problems – rather than as students who need teaching or reprimanding –  we make progress. In so doing, we significantly increase the chances of ending poverty in life-giving, dignifying, collaborative, effective ways.

What so many of us who do community work (myself included) often miss as we seek to attack the complex problems associated with poverty are the real perspectives, dreams, and goals of the real people who experience poverty. Even with the best intentions, if our solutions to poverty aren’t informed, driven, led, and evaluated by the people experiencing it, those “solutions” are doomed to fail. The same is true of programs designed to end hunger and to empower families to have secure access to healthy food.

So, as each of us enjoy this holiday season, may we be inspired to volunteer at local food pantries, to participate in food drives, and to give back to our community in other meaningful ways. But, let’s also seek to get to know our neighbors on their own terms. May we approach our neighbors who are experiencing poverty and food insecurity in a spirit of warm curiosity and teachability, believing that they hold the key wisdom and insight that is needed to solve these problems.

This week’s Act Locally Waco blog post is by Kelsey Scherer, a Child Hunger Outreach Specialist at the Texas Hunger Initiative. Are you interested in writing a post for the Act Locally Waco blog? If so, please email [email protected].




The Beauty and Hospitality of God’s Church in Waco

 by Anthony Sytsma

My wife and I moved to Waco in January and we are only living here for one year as she completes an internship. So instead of committing to one church, over the past year we visited a new church in Waco just about every Sunday. We purposely visited churches of different denominations – Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Missionary Alliance, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Cowboy, and non-denominational. We went to large mega churches, small church plants, a church that meets in homes, and a church that meets on the street. We went to mostly Hispanic, mostly black, mostly white churches, and diverse churches.

anthony and saraThroughout these experiences, I was amazed at all the things churches are doing to help their communities. From our visits, we’ve learned and seen that churches are befriending the homeless, generously giving to the poor, taking care of young mothers and their infants, visiting those in jail, giving encouragement to drug addicts, visiting those in hospitals and nursing homes, and putting on vacation Bible schools for children. Many also volunteer their time at local organizations, such as at World Hunger Relief, where we live.

However, this is what struck us the most during our visits. At every single church we went to, we felt very loved and welcomed. No matter how we were dressed, no matter if we were the only ones there with our skin color, we were appreciated. People asked about our lives and listened to our stories. We were invited to other events and meals and were even given gifts. The person I remember best was a little boy who gave me a big smile and hug and said, “We love you.” That made my week.

Waco is full of beautiful, loving, hospitable churches that are eager to love people and get to know new people. So my encouragement to you reading this – you need not be afraid of visiting a church. Get out there and try a new church this next Sunday. It doesn’t seem to matter much which one you pick. My prediction is that you will be surprised at how loving, non-judgmental, and welcoming people will be to you. I believe the reason for this is that Jesus is at work among his people, sinful and imperfect though they are, transforming their hearts so that they can love others, as they have also received love and grace from God.

This week’s Act Locally Waco Blog post was written by Anthony Sytsma. He is at World Hunger Relief with his wife Sara who is an intern here. They are going to Uganda in February with World Renew as missionaries. He will be teaching pastors and she will be doing agricultural development. Thanks, Anthony for this lovely reflection on your time in Waco!

If you would like to write a post for the Act Locally Waco blog, please email [email protected]. Thank you!By Anthony Sytsma


Understanding the Definition of “Homelessness”

by Phil York

Days ago, Oxford Dictionary accepted the popular term, “selfie” into the canon of the English language. Selfie (the act of extending your own smart phone ahead of you to take a self-portrait) is now part of our daily lexicon and day-to-day reality.

Definitions are important. They allow us to grasp our reality, place labels on items, and understand our world. This blog post will explore some of the definitions of homelessness. If we are to be informed citizens about homelessness laws, programs, and funding we need to understand how this important issue is defined.

Merriam-Webster defines homelessness as “having no place to live”. This simple description probably accurately reflects our common understanding of the issue, but it does not capture the variety of ways a person or family may experience homelessness. If we are going to work toward effective solutions, we need a more in depth understanding.

For example, in 2009, The City of Waco, along with a coalition of nonprofits and civic-minded leaders took steps to define and understand the long-term impact of one particular kind of homelessness, called “chronic homelessness. ” Chronic homelessness tends to be the kind of homelessness that is the most visible on our streets. Between 2008 and 2009, this group developed a report called “Opening Doors, Unlocking Potential: The Mayor’s 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness.” As the basis of this work, they used the federal government’s definition of chronic homelessness which, at that time, was the following: “an unaccompanied individual who has been homeless for a year or more, or has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years, and who may be disabled by addiction, mental illness or other disabilities.” (Note: In that report, the City estimated the cost of the chronically homeless to be $39,000 per year, per individual).

Chronic homelessness, while probably the most visible and the most expensive form of homelessness, is just one piece of the homelessness puzzle. It represents only a small percentage of all the individuals who are defined as “homeless” in our community. The United States Congress in conjunction with a few federal agencies collectively have different, and often overlapping, definitions for homelessness that are quite broad and may include populations we may not immediately recognize as homeless. For example, some people are considered homeless even though they technically have a roof over their head at night, if that roof is only temporary. In 2008 the US Congress defined a homeless person as “an individual who has a primary nighttime residence that is a temporary accommodation for not more than 90 days in the residence of another individual.” This definition includes coach surfers and others who may be housed by friends and family for a period of time.

The definition of homelessness used by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) includes four main categories:

  • Individuals and families that do not have a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence or who resided in an emergency shelter or place not meant for human habitation”.
  • Individuals and families who are on the verge of losing their primary nighttime residence.
  • Unaccompanied youth.
  • Individuals and families who are fleeing or attempting to flee domestic violence or other dangerous life-threatening conditions.

Children are defined by several federal agencies as homeless if they:

  • Live in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camping grounds due to lack of alternative adequate accommodations.
  • Live in emergency or transitional shelters.
  • Await foster care placement.
  • Live in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations or similar settings.
homelessness by age chart


All these definitions can make it a challenge to pin down the demographics of homelessness, but according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 46% of the nation’s homeless are younger than the age of 30; 22% are under the age of 18. This large percentage may be why our federal leadership moved to include children as a separate homeless category. Homeless children are a particular concern in Waco. According to recent estimates 1,500 children in WISD are considered homeless. You can imagine how difficult it would be for a child to concentrate on school work while couch surfing or living in a shelter or camping out at a park.

Homelessness affects our social and economic fabric on the national, state and local scale. You may have been surprised to learn how broadly homelessness is defined in our country and that it includes individuals who are technically living under roofs, foster children, substandard housing residents, couch surfers, shelter attendees and those fleeing domestic assault. These definitions become significant on the local level as nonprofits, churches and private organizations work with federal, state and local programs to qualify individuals for homeless programs and services.

Hopefully a more in depth understanding of the definition of homelessness will help you have a little context for what you hear about homelessness on the news or the radio. It’s important for all of us to understand these definitions as we participate as citizens in discussions about budget amendments and policy changes, and especially as we cast our ballots. If you were to take a selfie now, you would capture a more informed Wacoan. I hope to build on our collective knowledge with each blog post.

york_phil2 (2)Phil York, Coordinator of Grants and Contracts at Waco Habitat for Humanity is a self-described “policy nerd;” he is also the Act Locally Waco housing and homelessness policy blogger. You can direct questions to Phil to [email protected].  Would you be interested in blogging for Act Locally Waco?  If so please email [email protected].


Expressing Thanks in Waco

“There is no other virtue like gratitude – none. I’ve never known a person who was grateful who was, at the same time, mean or small or bitter or hurtful. Not when you’re grateful.” – Fred Craddock

By Ashley Bean Thornton

Isn’t it wonderful that we have a national holiday for the purpose of giving thanks? I am thankful for the wisdom of our fore-parents for establishing this day. It strikes me as profoundly wise to set aside a time to intentionally focus on giving thanks. I wonder — if they hadn’t done it so long ago — would we have the good sense to do it now? (I feel the same way about free lending libraries…but I digress).

I imagine our great-great-great-great grandparents knew this intuitively, but today we have research evidence that gratitude is good for you. According to the Harvard Mental Health Letter (November, 2011), “Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.” The same article goes on to offer this definition of gratitude, “Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In the process, people usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals — whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.”

Perhaps because thankfulness brings about that “connection to something larger than ourselves,” I find that there is a link between gratitude and generosity. When I take the time to count my blessings, the urge wells up to want to share those blessings with others. I imagine it is the same for you. With that in mind, I offer this short list of things for which I am thankful along with some ideas for sharing those blessings locally.

I am thankful for…

And finally, I am so very grateful for you – the Act Locally Waco Community. You have made my life rich this year. As I scroll back through the Act Locally Waco Facebook log, and browse through the pictures with the Big Orange Frame, I am almost overwhelmed by all the beautiful faces of you, my extraordinary friends and neighbors of every size and age and description – giving of yourselves, enjoying yourselves, or just keeping on keeping on. I appreciate you. I thank you, and I’m thankful for you. God bless Waco!

I may be naive, but not about what you may think…

By Ashley Bean Thornton

I was having a perfectly good visit with a friend at work. We were sharing dog pictures and yakking and laughing when a passerby derailed our pleasant conversation. He didn’t even stop to chat. He just lobbed in a comment about the column on SNAP benefits I had in the Trib a few weeks ago and then continued innocently on his way.

At the mention of the column, my friend rolled her eyes and said something to the effect of, “I saw your article. You’d have a different attitude about food stamps if you had worked in the place where they hand them out to people.” As it turns out, that had been one of her jobs in her pre-Baylor life and, to put it mildly, the experience had left her skeptical about the whole food stamp system. To put it less mildly — she seemed angry. I could hear the frustration rising in her voice as she described, for example, parents who seemed to have enough money to pay for the cigarettes they were smoking but not enough money to pay for food for their children. She may have been a little surprised when, instead of arguing with her, I asked her to tell me more about her experiences working in the Food Stamp program.

Here’s the thing: I don’t totally disagree with my friend.

It makes me angry and frustrated to hear about people who “waste” their money on cigarettes (or whatever) while taking my money via taxes to pay for food. Just like everybody else in the world, I want to spend as much of my own money as possible on me, or – in an attempt to sound slightly more generous – on my friends and family and interests I care about.

So why do I support a system of government programs that makes me angry and takes money out of my pocket? Well, it’s not because I naively believe there are no problems with it. I know there are people whose children go hungry because their parents trade their food stamps for all kinds of things – from rent to drugs. I know there are people who quit their jobs when their earned income tax check comes and blow the whole thing on X-boxes and tattoos. I know there are “students” who apply for low-interest, subsidized, student loans and then drop out as soon as the check comes with no thought of ever paying it back. I am not blind to any of this, and even though thanks to Bridges out of Poverty training and other interventions I can understand it a little better, I still don’t like it. Like my friend, it frustrates me to the point of anger.

So why then? To tell you the truth, I wonder that myself sometimes. I guess it comes down to a few basic things.

First of all, I think we need something. I am not willing to go 100% “survival of the fittest” in regard to social policy. I can imagine myself falling on hard times or people I love falling on hard times, and I want a safety net to be there. Also, though I know there are problems, I do think we tend to exaggerate them for dramatic effect. It’s just human nature to dwell on and magnify the things that upset us and forget all the times the system works well. Food Stamp fraud, for example, is estimated to amount to about 1 cent on the dollar, not perfect of course, but not all that terrible for a system that serves as many people as ours. I believe it is doing more good than harm.

More foundationally, I subscribe to the philosophy that we are “all better off when we are all better off.” If I sell cars, I am better off if more people can afford to buy them. If I have kids, they are better off if the other kids in their school are not dealing with so many problems that they can’t pay attention in class. My town has better streets if more people have decent jobs and are a paying into the tax coffers. My hospital has more resources to take care of me if fewer people are using the resource-hogging emergency room as their primary source of care. I guess it doesn’t seem to me “the market” has a very good track record of maximizing this general prosperity all on its own. If we want more people to climb the ladder of success, I think we have to give the “invisible hand” a little hand every now and then – enter government programs.

Does that mean I think the current system of food stamps and other government programs is perfect? Absolutely not. Does that mean I think we should just throw money at it with no thought to accountability? Absolutely not. Does that mean I think it’s okay for parents to trade the food stamps that are meant to help feed their children for cigarette money? Absolutely not. Does that mean I’m enthusiastic about donating a chunk of my hard-earned paycheck every month to subsidize people who “don’t want to work.” Absolutely not. In fact, it irks me when I feel like I’m being pressured into some kind of blanket defense of the whole system just because I don’t happen to think we ought to defund it to the point that it has no hope of serving its purpose. And, it irks me the other way when anytime I criticize the system people accuse me of being unjust to poor people. That kind of all or nothing thinking seems counterproductive to me.

There is no doubt some people are bad and take advantage of the system. (I’ll just mention that  happens at the top of the economic pyramid as well as at the bottom.) It may even be the whole thing has some fundamental flaws that need to be addressed. I’m not saying it’s perfect. I am saying I think we need something, and I am saying I don’t think it’s a good idea to deep six what we have without something that looks better on the horizon.

If I am naïve it is not in blindly believing that SNAP or any of our government programs are perfect. It may be in stubbornly believing – despite lots of evidence – that if we set our minds to it, we have the capacity to construct a program of social “scaffolding” that will make it more likely that more of us can achieve financial security and success — and that if we do — we will all be better off for it. I’m okay with being naive about that.

Someone in Lorena Knows How to Raise a Child!

By Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton, Spokesman for Waco Police Department.  This originally appeared on the Waco Police Department Facebook page, and Sgt. Swanton has also graciously shared it with Act Locally Waco. 

Thought I’d share a story that happened last night while doing a part-time gig at the China Spring vs. Lorena Football game.

A little girl from Lorena, about 7-8 years old walks up and tells me “Thanks officer for your service and keeping us safe!” I have a feeling that this is not the first time she has done that to someone in uniform…Military, EMS, Fire, etc.. as it came too naturally for her to do.

It was obvious to me that her Mom and Dad have made it a point to teach this little one what a lot of the world is missing today…Kindness, respect and an ability to thank others for what many take for granted.

So many times as officers we have parents grab a misbehaving small child and march them over to where we may be and scream at the child “I’ll have this officer put you in jail if you don’t stop (insert whatever behavior and it’s most often absolutely nothing)!! REALLY!!??? What on earth does the parent think this does to what the kiddo thinks about Police? How about making them terrified of us??? That’s exactly what it does. What happens when this child gets lost somewhere? Would you not want the child to feel safe walking up to an officer to ask for help in getting home?

I may never know who you are, but a hearty thanks to the parents of that little Lorena Leopard who is going to grow up to be a beautiful person! Mom and Dad…you are doing a great job!

This week’s Blog was written by Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton, Spokesman for Waco Police Department. (Facebook: WacoPoliceDepartment; Twitter: WacoPolice)

If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco blog, please email [email protected].

Why should we care about housing and homelessness?

With this post Act Locally Waco introduces Phil York, Coordinator of Grants and Contracts at Waco Habitat for Humanity. A self-described “policy nerd,” Phil has agreed to a stint as ALW’s housing and homelessness policy blogger. Welcome aboard, Phil! We are looking forward to your insights on this crucial element in making Waco a great place to live for every person of every level of income!

Policy briefings, lobbyist meetings, and picket lines…this is the typical landscape we see and hear in the headlines of Washington. They all seem to be actions from a distant planet with unknown implications on our day-to-day lives. This blog series is designed to make federal housing and homelessness policy less alien and more accessible, and to explain what effect these important policies have on Waco, Texas.

But…why should we care?

york_phil2 (2)In graduate school, I had a professor who asked this question at the end of each student’s graduation thesis. Needless to say this is a question that is so fundamental that it feels like a punch to the gut after you are finished an important speech. But the question is worth asking with any social issue. Wacoans should care about housing and homelessness because of the social and economic impact these issues have in our community.

For example, consider the impact of homelessness on our children and youth. Homelessness is a growing problem among families, particularly families with children. If youth are subject to homelessness they are also subject to health hazards that are easily acquired by living on the streets such as communicable diseases . Also, children experiencing homelessness are four times more likely to show delayed development and twice as likely to have learning disabilities as non-homeless children .

Sadly, Youth are a growing demographic among America’s homeless. Nationwide, homelessness among K-12 age students saw a 10 percent rise from 1,065,794 to 1,168,354 . According to the US Department of Education, the Lone Star state is third among the top 10 states with the number of homeless students. Texas accounts for 94,624 homeless enrolled students; this represents an 11% increase between 2011-2012 .

These children are our future workers and leaders. The current social impact is clear, and we would also be wise to consider the long term economic impact of a future workforce that has not been able to study in a safe environment, a future workforce that is vulnerable to weather and disease. These deprivations during childhood can have a lasting negative impact on a person’s ability to get the education necessary to find a good-paying job. This in turn has a negative impact on the economic health of the whole community.

In addition to this kind of long term social impact, the immediate economic impact of homelessness is clear. A 2007 video produced by the City of Waco shows that the cost per chronically homeless person in Waco is $39,000. Approximately 15% of homeless population is chronically, or persistently, homeless. This 15% of the homeless population uses 50% of homeless services. The total cost of homelessness to our community is estimated at more than $7.6 million. Shelters, emergency rooms, police and correctional facilities are among the tax-funded programs used. One possible approach to this challenge is Permanent Supportive Housing. This kind of housing approach could potentially cut the cost of helping these chronically homeless individuals. Once chronically homeless individuals are housed, this could free up resources to help reduce episodic homelessness.

Affordable housing and a thoughtful approach to homelessness issues will have an impact on the current and future health of Waco. Housing has a direct tie to education, health, and the economic prosperity of our community. We should care about housing because it is critical.

The stakes are high. Familiarity with policies that drive local programs can help us actively participate in the continued improvement of our community.

I look forward to learning with you. Regards, Phil York.


High Hopes from a Boring Sentence

On Sunday October 20, on Section B page 1 of the Waco Trib, a few paragraphs deep into a story with the headline, “Poverty Initiative Moving Forward is an innocuous little sentence that made my heart go pitter-pat. Here it is: “The city of Waco recently hired the W.J. Upjohn Institute to come up with a plan to address income and employment in Waco.” Bland as it may seem to you, I hope to be looking back on that statement in a few years cherishing it fondly as a significant milestone in our efforts to reduce the rate of poverty in Waco.

Here is why that boring little sentence sets my heart a-flutter:

Reason #1: It’s a sign we are taking a systemic look at our poverty situation. – We have a high percentage of people in Waco (around 30%) who live in households with very little income – too little to support the basic needs of the household. This has a negative effect on our ability to achieve our potential as a community. While I believe that there may be a huge element of personal behavior involved in why any particular person ends up in that situation, I also believe that when such a high percentage of residents are in that situation it’s time to look at the environment. In other words, when 5% of the fish are dying, you can make the argument that there is something wrong with the fish; when 30% of the fish are dying, it’s time to take a look at the lake. My high hope for this plan we have commissioned from the Upjohn Institute is that it is a sign that we are getting serious about looking at the lake.

Reason #2: It’s a sign that we are committed to using facts to inform our strategy. – One of my favorite concepts from the 2012 Poverty Solutions Steering Committee report is, “Our work together needs to be based on facts rather than speculation.” I understand that facts are not a magic wand and that we must not fall into the trap of “analysis paralysis, ” but I do believe in the power of information. Facts, skillfully collected and wisely considered, will help us make better decisions. According to their project proposal Upjohn intends to gather information about, among other things:

  • Current economic and workforce trends in the city and surrounding areas and their potential impact on Waco,
  • Characteristics of unemployment, underemployment, and nonparticipation in the workforce,
  • The demand by industry for occupations by skill level,
  • Existing training opportunities for the city’s high-demand occupations,
  • the negative economic impact of poverty.

It is not a trivial exercise to collect this information, and I doubt we could do it very expeditiously without bringing in some hired help. I’m excited that this project will afford us the opportunity to, in a relatively short time, build a solid base of information to inform our strategy for moving forward.

Reason #3: I’m glad we are bringing in some outside perspective. – I have a deep respect for the brainpower that the people of Waco, especially our city leadership, have put toward the issue of reducing our rate of poverty, and one thing I particularly respect is that they have recognized the benefit of bringing in some ideas from the wider world. I didn’t know anything about the Upjohn Institute before reading their project proposal, but after reading the proposal and checking out their website, they look like rock stars to me. They have been studying employment and unemployment since 1945. The list of current and recent research projects on their website is long and wide-ranging, and the cities with whom they have worked stretch from coast to coast. I am looking forward to hearing how these years of practice and the expertise born from this experience can benefit us!

So, Welcome to Waco, Upjohn Institute! You can count me as one of your groupies! I’m excited to see you coming. I hope we pick every bit of useful information out of your big brains and put it to good use!

upjohn picIf you would like to learn more about this project, make plans to attend the Greater Waco Education Summit. George A. Erickcek, Senior Regional Analyst for the Upjohn Institute will be the keynote speaker at the dinner on Wednesday night, November 13. Hope to see you there!