Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Poverty


Watch poverty suburbanize in Montgomery County

As Montgomery County has become more diverse, it also faces new challenges with poverty. A new mapping tool shows just how much the county's changed over the past 30 years.

Where poverty is in Montgomery County. Each dot represents 20 low-income people. Blue dots are whites, yellow dots are blacks, green dots are Hispanics, and red dots are Asians. Original image from the Urban Institute.

The Urban Institute, a DC-based think tank that looks at social and economic issues, made this awesome mapping tool that shows where very low-income people lived between 1980 to 2010. The Atlantic Cities notes that the maps show dramatic demographic shifts across the country, notably the suburbanization of poverty.

That's especially evident here in Montgomery County. 30 years ago, the county's only significant concentration of poverty was around close-in Langley Park and Long Branch, which had established themselves as immigrant gateways by the late 1970s.

But today, you can also find clusters of poverty throughout East County and the Upcounty, in Wheaton and Aspen Hill, in White Oak and Briggs Chaney, and even along I-270 in Gaithersburg and Germantown. Many of them have only emerged within the past decade.

Meanwhile, communities that have historically been affluent, like Bethesda or Olney, appear to have stayed the same. The area along Rockville Pike between Rockville Town Center and White Flint, where a considerable amount of new, high-end development is happening, seems to have actually become less poor.

We know that people increasingly desire urban neighborhoods, whether that's places like Columbia Heights in DC or downtown Silver Spring. But the flip side of that revitalization is that the poor often move or are pushed out into suburban areas. While these communities offer more space or better public services, they aren't always well-equipped to help low-income people.

Groups like IMPACT Silver Spring, which helps low-income people and immigrants connect with community groups and social services, began working in and around downtown Silver Spring in the 1990s. Today, IMPACT does outreach at garden apartment complexes in Gaithersburg and Briggs Chaney. Unlike close-in Silver Spring or Long Branch, these areas don't have easy access to shopping, jobs, public services or transit.

Here, fears of crime mean parents won't let their kids play outside. Even walking to the bus stop can be dangerous due to roads designed for speeding cars.

A family tries to cross busy Columbia Pike in White Oak. Photo by the author.

Instead of working to combat the problem, more affluent neighbors fight any attempts at change or build fences in a lame attempt at keeping "undesirables" out. Meanwhile, kids growing up in these neighborhoods are often blocked from the high-quality public schools Montgomery County is known for.

The challenges that suburban poor face aren't necessarily different than those of their inner-city counterparts. But they're compounded by the built form of suburbia, which was designed under the assumption that everyone would have money and a car and does little to accommodate those who lack both.

Initiatives like the county's BRT plan or the White Oak Science Gateway will help bring transit, jobs and other amenities to these neighborhoods and improve residents' quality of life. But it'll be important to ensure that they aren't pushed out again into even more remote areas.


Bike sharing systems push to reach underrepresented groups

Bike sharing has been a huge success in many cities and received many well-deserved plaudits, but some have criticized bike sharing for not necessarily serving all segments of the population. What are bike sharing systems doing to expand their reach?

Photo by Eric Gilliland on Flickr.

Data on the demographics and socioeconomics of annual bike sharing users is only now emerging, and there are no comprehensive reviews of what bike sharing systems can do to ensure that they serve the entire community.

As a part of my graduate work at Virginia Tech's Alexandria urban planning program, I asked managers of current and planned North American bike sharing systems what they have done to increase access to bike sharing for low-income communities, and minority groups disproportionately underrepresented in bicycling.

The size and scope of measures to promote bike sharing equity vary, but all types of bike sharing systems are working to lower access barriers.Whether a large established system with significant government investment like Capital Bikeshare, a new small nonprofit system searching for funding like Kansas City B-cycle, or a for-profit system like Decobike Miami Beach, operators are expending the effort to lower access barriers. Here some highlights of how they are doing it:

Station siting: Lowering access barriers starts with placing stations where they primarily serve low-income communities. For example, systems might consciously place stations adjacent to affordable housing, or prioritize expansion to minority neighborhoods disproportionately underrepresented in bicycling.

Many systems reported doing this, including NiceRide Minnesota, which placed 30 stations (or approximately 20% of their system) in areas identified by the community as necessary for equity.

Community-specific marketing and outreach: By reaching out specifically to low-income communities, or by targeting marketing and outreach to the concerns and communications channels of minority communities underrepresented in bicycling, bike sharing systems might be able to tap into latent demand in those communities.

In Arlington County, VA, the largest low-income group is Latinos with limited English proficiency. Arlington is planning a special Spanish-language outreach program for all of the county's sustainable transportation programs, including Capital Bikeshare.

Financial assistance: Providing some variety of financial assistance was the most common way bike sharing systems promoted equity. Many lower-income people cannot afford the full cost of the annual membership at one time. To deal with that, several systems offer (or plan to offer) installment payment plans.

Bike sharing systems are also partnering with organizations to help qualified recipients obtain a bank account and debit/credit card. Capital Bikeshare introduced its partnership with Bank on DC over a year ago. This program combines a reduced membership fee with access to a credit card, and now has 90 participants.

Another measure that can relieve the financial barrier to bike sharing is not placing a temporary "hold" against a user's credit or debit limit. Many systems put a hold on the full replacement fee for a bicycle, to guard against bikes not being returned. For people with little money in their checking account, this can make it impossible for them to buy necessities. Arlington is investigating ways to allow for cash payments, which would obviate the need for a debit/credit card entirely.

Boston's Hubway provided over 550 annual memberships to qualified low-income recipients at a cost of $5 each, along with longer-than-normal free trip durations. Boston also investigated (but ultimately had to cancel) an idea dubbed "Prescribe a Bike," where medical providers would refer at-risk patients to subsidized bikesharing memberships. The Boston programs are administered and funded by an obesity prevention public health program.

Economic contribution to communities: Bikesharing potentially provides intrinsic economic benefits to all communities by reducing the personal costs of travel for users, and increasing economic activity by generating more trips overall.

But beyond this, I asked systems about ways the bike sharing operations might be directly contributing to the economic well-being of low-income communities, such as actively recruiting employees from low-income communities, locating facilities (and their associated jobs) in places easily accessible to low-income neighborhoods, and partnering and subcontracting with community-oriented nonprofit agencies.

Denver B-cycle partnered with a local Goodwill Industries nonprofit agency to recruit employees from low-income communities. Motreal's BIXI worked with a youth-service program to provide maintenance labor. Montgomery County, which is soon joining Capital Bikeshare, gave a preference for minority-owned small businesses in subcontracting procurement.

Safe places to ride: With the federal government investing fewer dollars for active transportation infrastructure in low-income neighborhoods, one possible barrier to using bike sharing could be the absence of safe places to ride a bicycle. I asked bike sharing systems to describe any efforts to encourage and promote installing new bicycle travel facilities near residents with lower incomes or disproportionately underrepresented in bicycling.

Kansas City B-cycle, a nonprofit bike sharing entity receiving less than half of its capital funding from government transportation funding (and among the smallest systems in the survey sample) is actively pursuing Safe Routes to School and other grants to directly institute bicycle travel facility improvements themselves.

Membership media: One way to make it easier to pay for bike sharing would be to integrate bikesharing payment media with other accounts that low-income people may already possess, including transit farecards and household utility billing accounts. A number of systems reported plans and efforts for farecard integration, but the hardware is not generally compatible, and there isn't money available to retrofit the stations.

One system to watch is the planned San Francisco system, which requested in its RFP that bidders discuss whether their systems could be compatible with the regional transit Clipper Card.

Overcoming bicycling barriers: If people have little experience bicycling or don't own helmets, it can create barriers to bicycling and bikesharing use. Several systems described programs to provide subsidized or free helmets and bicycle safety instruction workshops to communities they want to reach. They worked with bicycle shops, community colleges, and local bicycle advocacy organizations to deliver the helmets and provide the classes.

Boston's Hubway offers reduced-cost helmets in retail locations in close proximity to stations, and gives free helmets to subsidized low-income members. It also offers instructional bicycling safety classes, though one Boston official characterized attendance at these classes as "low."

For more details about the survey methodology, details on measures that each system is pursuing address access barriers, caveats, and some suggestions for further research, please take a look at the full paper (PDF). I hope that the report serves as a useful resource for existing and emerging bikesharing systems to broaden participation in this exciting new transportation mode.


Thousands eating contaminated Anacostia River fish

At least 17,000 people in the lower Anacostia watershed eat fish from the river every year. These fish spend years swimming in polluted water and resting and feeding amidst sediment contaminated with toxic chemicals.

Anacostia Park, June 2012. Photo by the author.

This contamination is very likely ending up on people's dinner plates. In many cases, the people eating this fish have limited resources and few alternatives for safer food.

The Washington City Paper recently discussed these findings from a report, Addressing the Risk, the Anacostia Watershed Society, the US Environmental Protection Agency, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA, Chesapeake Bay Trust, and other local entities assisted in the report.

The team set out to understand how large the subsistence fishing population was, and how much they knew about the river pollution and the risk of eating fish from it. We did not expect to find so many people sharing the fish so widely.

How do you refuse an elderly neighbor on food stamps, when she asks you to bring back a fish? Or if you've been unemployed for a while, but need to feed your family, how do you resist a free, local meal? If you're hungry today, is it worth the risk that the chemicals in the fish might cause cancer in 20 years?

Many fishermen are in fact aware that the river is polluted and that the fish reflect that. They have informal methods for screening the fish, and many will throw back a fish with lesions, cloudy eyes, or other outward signs of sickness. But those methods are further evidence that the fishermen think the fish are only contaminated on the outside, and don't address the PCBs hiding in the fatty tissue within.

Even if they don't plan to eat the fish themselves, the pleas of a neighbor in need or a passing child are irresistible. The fishermen feel like they have helped in their generosity.

Obviously the long-term solution is to clean up the river. We should be able to paddle, fish, and even swim in the river without worrying about damaging our health. Cleaning up the six legacy toxic sites and reducing polluted stormwater runoff (which carries toxins from roads, parking lots, and other hard surfaces) will go a long way.

In the meantime, we need to do more to educate everyone, and particularly at-risk groups like women of childbearing age, about the condition of the river and the risks of consuming its fish. It is also incumbent on leaders in DC and Maryland to improve access to other healthy food. Generally speaking, fish is a very healthy protein. Could the DC area support aquaculture, perhaps in a community-supported model?

AWS and its partners will be holding a community meeting in Ward 7 in early December to answer questions about the research and begin the discussion of how we solve the problem. We hope councilmembers and community leaders will come and pledge to be part of the solution.


Anacostia shelter ignores community, starts construction

Since plans were announced abruptly this summer, Anacostia residents have been pushing for a dialogue about a planned women's shelter on Good Hope Road SE. Calvary Women's Service, the organization behind the shelter, has ignored the community at every turn. Meanwhile, construction began on the future "Good Hope Kitchen" last week.

A women's shelter in the heart of the Anacostia Business District.

Opposition to the shelter has grown since the community was first notified, through an email from DC Council Chairman Kwame Brown touting the future arrival of the shelter.

The building, previously an Elks Club, employment training center, and Post Office, was purchased by Calvary this January for $950,000. Zoned as Class C-3-A, the building has a "buy right use" which does not require rezoning to provide supportive housing. As a result, the community has no leverage to prevent the project from going forward.

Community opposition & political malaise

On June 30th, Greta Fuller, ANC8A03, sent Calvary a letter stating her resistance. "Bringing another social service to the business corridor of Anacostia will make it all the more difficult to bring in more businesses and shop owners."

On August 18th, the entire 8A Advisory Neighborhood Commission sent DC Council Chairman Kwame Brown a letter requesting a meeting with CWS as pursuant to DC statute. Along with the letter were 22 pages of support petitions representing several hundred residents.

Construction has begun on 1217-1219 Good Hope Rd. SE.
"It's disappointing the parties involved don't think it's worth their time to sit down with the community that is affected to engage in a conversation," said Charles Wilson, ANC8A04. "After repeatedly denying our request to meet, it shows that Calvary could care less about how we feel or what we think."

"We don't have any authority to intervene. This needs to be resolved by the executive." said Joyce Clement Smith, Chief of Staff to Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry. Noting the growing unrest of the community, Smith said, "We are clearly aware of the opposition."

Councilmember Barry struck a different tone yesterday in a twitter message, but this political rhetoric may be too little, too late.

To compound the community's frustration, in October Calvary launched a "grassroots fundraising campaign" to raise $100,000 in 100 days to support the building of the facility's kitchen. Kristine Thompson, Calvary's Executive Director, did not respond to repeated emails.

According to the press release announcing the campaign, "The Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation has been the first to commit their support to the Good Hope Kitchen by offering a $50,000 matching gift for funds raised through project." In response to an inquiry about what weight the community's lack of support for the shelter played in the grant evaluation process, Rose Ann Cleveland, Executive Director of the Cafritz Foundation, wrote in an email, "I would suggest that you contact directly Ms. Kristine Thompson, the executive director of Calvary. She is the best source for information on the transitional housing program for women that Calvary provides and knows most about the many donors that support Calvary's efforts."

Good Hope Road SE: "Anything you want!"

The community's discontentment stems from its gnawing angst that further concentration of social service agencies will undermine Historic Anacostia's fledgling business district. With the high profile Uniontown Bar and Grill facing an uncertain future, Anacostia's retail future is all the more precarious.

"Everything they do for this community is to get people over, under it, around it, and through it," said Reverend Oliver Johnson, a lifelong Anacostian and former ANC Commissioner, on a recent morning.

District leaders' silence on the shelter project only reinforces residents' feelings that politicians view Anacostia as a social service dumping ground. This taciturn endorsement of the convergence of relief agencies in Anacostia makes the neighborhood indeterminably unattractive to young families, a demographic vital to the city's future says Johnson.

"Here's the issue about any community that has rehabilitation as its primary function. You got St. Elizabeths Hospital - the only community in the city that has a mental health hospital - that releases to the streets. You got the largest methadone treatment clinic here, and the people from Virginia who don't have methadone [clinics] anymore are coming here to DC."

The commerce that defined the Anacostia of Johnson's youth - a full fledged grocery store, movie theater, People's Drug store, and multiple clothing stores - is nearly gone, dominated by non-profits, carry-outs, street hustlers, and mendicants.

"I have a three year old grand son," says Johnson, "and when I walk him down Good Hope Road, people say, 'Singles and packs. Anything you want!' My grandson asks, 'Grandpa, what's that?' And I tell him, 'They're selling single cigarettes and drugs.'"

"Then we walk up the street. A man approaches and says, 'Gotta dollar? Got fifty cents?' My grandson asks, 'What is he doing?' I tell him he's begging," Johnson said. "I had one of the people say to my grandson, 'Gotta learn how to hustle!' I stopped and said my grandson is three years old. I said, 'Don't you know I will exercise some parking lot fellowship on you that you ain't never seen.'"

"So what happens is, you got a 900 hundred people per day methadone clinic, The Good Hope Institute, you have a 12 step program for AA/NA called the Anacostia Young People's club. And now this Kitchen. Everybody has a clean name. Nobody says who they are. They all have a clean socially acceptable name."

According to Calvary's website, the 14,000 square foot project comes at a price tag of $3 million and "will transform an abandoned building in Anacostia into a new home that will serve 50 women a night and provide 100 meals a day."

While the investment is needed in Anacostia, the kind of use is not. No matter the redemptive mission of the shelter, its presence has the potential to be detrimental to the community in the long run. Additionally, Calvary's refusal to meet with the community hasn't allayed residents and property owners' trepidations.

In the 70s and 80s, old center cities across the country discovered that headquartering human and social service agencies downtown dashed hopes of economic recovery. It would appear DC is now poised to re-learn this lesson in Historic Anacostia.


Some special needs kids still falling through DCPS cracks

DC Public Schools recently opened a second facility to serve DC parents who are concerned that their preschool-age child may have a disability or a developmental delay. However, as a judge's ruling made clear last week, ineffective managers of these facilities are allowing children with special needs to fall through the cracks.

Photo by NazarethCollege on Flickr.

This is not only tragic for these children, but extremely expensive when DCPS identifies their special needs much later.

On November 8, DCPS opened its second Early Stages center next to the Minnesota Ave Metro station. The program, which started in October 2009 with the opening of its first center at the Walker-Jones Education Campus in Ward 6, is free for all DC residents, as well as families who attend private schools in DC, who suspect that their child between 3 and 5 years of age may have a disability or a developmental delay.

This isn't just a compassionate and cost-effective initiative. It's also a federal law.

The Child Find provision of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that all states have a comprehensive system "to assure that all children who are in need of early intervention or special education services are located, identified, and referred."

This provision emphasizes the importance of early intervening services since providing services to children before they reach kindergarten "can have a significant impart on a child's ability to learn new skills as well as reduce the need for costly interventions over time" for children with developmental delays and disabilities as well as those with learning disabilities.

While DCPS, including Early Stages for preschool-age children, and DC Charter Schools are responsible for identifying students in need of special education services between the ages of 3 and 21, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education is responsible for identifying all DC residents from birth to age 3 in need of special education services.

Sadly, these obligations to the most vulnerable in the District are still not being met. Testimony in the continuing class action lawsuit, DL v. District of Columbia, demonstrates that DCPS must strengthen several elements needed to have a comprehensive Child Find system. The suit was brought about by 7 families in 2005 "who encountered barriers and delays in securing special education services for which they were eligible".

A judge overseeing the suit ruled last week that DCPS had failed to provide some parents with a timely evaluation, as determined under IDEA. Early Stages staff acknowledged that "at least four patients per day contacted Early Stages 'to report that a Child Find Coordinator had failed to return their calls regarding providing their children with an evaluation or an eligibility screening.'"

The testimony of another DCPS witness, Maxine Freund, a professor at George Washington's Graduate School of Education and Human Development, also illustrated how "leadership turnover and lengthy vacancies in key positions" hindered Early Stages' efforts in becoming a comprehensive child find system.

Poor leadership has most likely limited the development of a tracking system "to determine which children are receiving services and ensure follow-up once children are referred" as well as complete coordination among agencies in Washington, DC involved in providing services to identified children.

The opening of the second Early Stages center is certainly a step in the right direction. Before the opening of the second Early Stages center, 40 percent of the referrals in the Ward 6 Early Stages center were from children in Wards 7 and 8. This high number of referrals is consistent with the most recent census data that illustrates that 40 percent of DC children live in Wards 7 and 8.

Furthermore, children who live in poverty are more at risk for having a developmental delay. While less than 3.1 percent of children who live in Ward 3 live in poverty, over 40 percent of children who live in Ward 7 and about 50 percent of children who live in Ward 8 live in poverty. Early Stages staff believe that at least 12 percent of children in this age group have a disability or a developmental delay.

While the implementation of the Early Stages program has played a role in increasing the identification of preschool-age children with disabilities or developmental delays, DCPS must strengthen its efforts to fill the position vacancies with people who are not only experienced in Child Find, but also have strong leadership skills.

Including strong leaders in management positions and reducing turnover would increase the likelihood of Early Stages developing a culture that supports the aspects of a comprehensive Child Find system, including timely evaluations, communication with families, interagency coordination, and the development of a tracking system.


Homeless shelter with no retail will hinder Anacostia

Anacostia residents are eager to create a vibrant main street. But plans to put a homeless shelter in the middle of the business district, especially one without any ground-floor retail component, would impede Historic Anacostia's progress.

Image from Google Street View.

Lydia DePillis reported in the Washington City Paper that Calvary Women's Services will be opening a women's homeless shelter at 1217-1219 Good Hope Road SE.

Though this project has been in the works for months, many community leaders learned of the shelter through an email blast from Chairman Kwame Brown last week.

I am a small business owner on the 2000 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Ave SE, which is around the corner from the proposed homeless shelter. My personal preference is to have more options for lunch and dinner in the business district.

While there is indeed a need for social services in the neighborhood, many residents east of the river worry that an overabundance of such facilities will stifle revitalization efforts. Chris Jerry, Vice President of the Fairlawn Citizens Association, stated, "Ward 8, and the portion of Ward 7 Fairlawn, soon to be redistricted to Ward 8, the areas closest to the bridges that begin or end east of the Anacostia River, have been overrun with social program facilities."

The homeless shelter would be right in the middle of the business district and less than a block from a methadone clinic, also location on Good Hope Road SE, which according to Mr. Jerry "serves addicts not only from DC, but suburban Virginia and Maryland too."

Over the last four years the 1200 Block of Good Hope Road has experienced some positive changes. ARCH Development Corporation open the Honfleur Art Gallery in 2007 to bring art to the community and display art of local residents through its annual East of the River show. The newly constructed Anacostia Gateway I, located at end intersection of Good Hope Road and Martin Luther King Jr Ave SE, opened in 2009.

The 1200 block of Good Hope is home to one of the original Capital Bikeshare Stations. As recent as last month a 24/7 Express Mart opened at 1223 Good Hope Rd SE.

Putting aside that the newcomer to the block is a homeless shelter, the larger question is why put a 100% residential building in the middle of a business district?

At its proposed location there could have been more creativity by making the project mixed-use. Calvary could locate a restaurant or retail business on the street level where the residents of the homeless shelter could have employment and gain some skills. The residences could be on the upper floor. This would allow for provision of social services and create jobs, while energizing the street level.

As if it is wasn't hard enough to get economic development East of the River, decisions like this make empty store fronts more unattractive for potential businesses. Main streets like Good Hope Road in Historic Anacostia should have commerce that creates employment and cultivates new businesses.

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