Poverty tour shows need to address jobs, hunger, housing

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Visitors to Elizabeth City often walk away with pleasant memories of the Museum of the Albemarle, The Center at Arts of the Albemarle and Port Discover Hands-on Science Center, among other attractions.

Yet there’s another side of the Harbor of Hospitality that isn’t discussed much or seen that often. It’s where poverty resides — places visited this past week by participants in the Truth and Hope Tour of Poverty in North Carolina.

As with many cities our size, there is a part of the population without jobs or homes. Along with the haves — or those with jobs and nice homes — are the have-nots.

Among the have-nots are those who struggle to make ends meet and find themselves getting further behind. And then there are those who have fallen into poverty and need as much of our public safety net as we can offer.

At a forum last Thursday, resident Wendy Bogues said many people are so poor and the electric bills so high that people are practically freezing inside their homes — using kerosene heaters and burning candles.

“It’s awful,” she said. “Something is totally wrong.”

The recession has “officially” been over for two years, yet our unemployment rate still hovers around 10 percent, the homeless count is about 200 people in Elizabeth City, and nearly one in five North Carolinians live in poverty. For a family of four, the poverty income level is considered to be $22,000 a year or $424 a week.

An estimated one in four African-Americans and one in three Latinos live in poverty. The rate is even higher for just children — in North Carolina 40.2 percent of African-American children and 42.6 percent of Latino children lived in poverty in 2010.

Also, in 2010 the jobless rate for African-Americans was 17.4 percent, above the state average of 10.5 percent for that year.

With those grim numbers, it’s no wonder that educational achievement suffers for minorities, who have lower test scores and graduation rates than white students. Further, life expectancy for African-Americans in North Carolina is 6.5 years shorter than the average white North Carolinian.

Through the efforts of the NAACP and its state president Rev. William Barber, the Truth and Hope Tour of Poverty in North Carolina was initiated.

“We want to shine the light of truth on the conditions of poverty and despair in North Carolina,” said Barber. “We have faith there are leaders in our government, our media, our churches and our schools who believe in the North Carolina Constitution’s clear mandate that our “Government is instituted solely for the good of the whole.

“When our leaders act on that belief, a tidal wave of hope can come right behind the tornadoes of economic despair, creating a powerful new wave of economic and spiritual investment in eastern North Carolina.”

Organizers of the tour say there is no political agenda to promote, other than to raise awareness and support for programs that help pull people out of poverty and give them opportunity and hope.

One stop along the tour was made last week in Elizabeth City. The New Beginnings men’s shelter, operated by the Rev. Tony Rice, was visited.

Rice explained there are only 26 beds for homeless people in the city, yet there are many more homeless — some who sleep in cars, on porches and in wooded areas.

“I hope we can get some awareness to our community and to our state officials that eastern North Carolina needs some help,” Rice said.

To help solve the immediate homeless problem, efforts are under way to turn the former Albemarle District Jail into a homeless shelter.

To feed the hungry, the Food Bank of the Albemarle provides food to 135 nonprofit organizations in 15 counties, feeding more than 21,000 people, including 7,000 children and 3,500 seniors. Last year, the Food Bank provided more than 4.6 million pounds of food or the equivalent of 3.5 million meals to the region’s needy.

Our churches serve a major role in helping the neediest among us. Also, the United Way of the Albemarle turns local donations into much-needed funds for organizations that help the needy. Area residents have traditionally come through, a tribute to the love and care that Elizabeth City represents.

Meanwhile, as the poverty tour has shown us, we need to do more.

We need to remind our friends, neighbors and elected leaders that poverty is unacceptable, and that simply blaming the recession is not a solution.