Can we end poverty and homelessness? Or is this a bridge too far?

During the summers of the early 1960s, Saturday mornings began the same way for me. I’d take my mother’s shopping car, leave our two-bedroom apartment in the Vladeck low-income housing project on the lower east side of Manhattan. I scavenged for return deposit bottles by going through every trash can I walked by. Sometimes, because I was hungry, I would eat half eaten fruits or other foods I found that were not too soiled. After I filled the cart, I’d go to the supermarket to cash them in. Then I would stand outside the store’s entrance and ask elderly shoppers leaving the store if they needed help. Some would say yes and place their groceries in the cart. I followed them to their apartments. They’d take their groceries in and then give me a few coins as payment. By the end of the morning, I earned up to a few dollars. I used the money to take myself and my brother the movie theater the next day. I did this because my mother, who worked so hard and was also attending night school, did not have any spared money. Our financial struggle was particularly dire at the end of each month when all we would have to eat was white rice with ketchup. She was going to school to learn English and get her GED. As a single mother, she was determined not to stay stuck in poverty. She had been homeless as a child and did not want us to experience that. She earned her GED, then her associate degree becoming a Practical Nurse, her bachelor’s to become a Registered Nurse and before retiring she earned a master’s degree. She believed she could end poverty and prevent homelessness for her family. She never thought the bridge was too far nor do I. I am not alone.

Nelson Mandela did not believe the bridge out of poverty was too far. In his 2005 speech at the “Make Poverty History,” he said: “Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the action of human beings.”

Before going any further, what is poverty? There are several definitions:

In North Carolina, families and children are defined as poor if family income is below the federal poverty threshold. The 2019 threshold is $25,750 for a family of four (4). If we use the first definition, we know a family of four needs twice the federal threshold to meet their basic needs. We also know money alone is not the only resource a family needs to build their bridge out poverty. Social capital, education, job skills, spiritual, mental, and physical health are other resources a family needs to not only build a bridge but to sustain themselves from one generation to the next.

No, the bridge is not too far! Not if we are as a city, nation, and global community decide to forge a coalition of the willing. A coalition to reinvigorate President Johnson’s “War on Poverty;” which died on the vine because the resources needed to sustain the programs created to eradicate poverty were diverted to fight an Viet Nam war. I offer some actions this coalition could take to end poverty and homelessness:

  • Volunteer your time, expertise, social capital, and compassion. Shared it with organizations serving under-resourced communities.
  • Give financial to data-driven organization using evidence-based practices to reduce poverty and homelessness. Organizations that match your values and are engaged in work that moves your heart.
  • Exercise your constitutional duty, write, call, visit and vote for lawmakers who are committed to equity, justice, fair wage policies, and work to end poverty and homelessness. Our votes are precious and highly valued; let’s use them judiciously. Together we can create the political will needed to accomplish this.
  • Invest in local businesses, help under-resourced individuals become entrepreneurial in their communities. New businesses and the jobs they create are a sustainable way to end poverty and homelessness.
  • Advocate for and use public transportation systems; communities with robust energy efficient public transportation provide an invaluable communal resource to our fellow citizens. Going to and from work, school, health care, and leisure activities benefit everyone, particularly those individuals struggling to build a bridge out of poverty. Every $1 communities invest in public transportation approximately $4 is generated in economic returns.

These are just a few of the actions we can take together to end poverty and homelessness. The bridge out of poverty and homelessness is not too far! It was not too far for my mother or me. Together we can ensure it is not too far Charlotteans, North Carolinians, Americans, or citizens across the globe. We can exercise courageous equity.