December 22, 2005
Despite its seemingly well-earned reputation for kindness, Wilson County lacks two of the essentials most desperately needed by those caught in the cruel clamps of poverty — shelter and transportation.
Experts from across the board agreed the lack of both can occasionally become deadly for those at the very bottom of society, where statistics show the pain of poverty in Wilson County is wildly disproportionate with single mothers and African-American families struggling at alarmingly high rates.
The additional burden inadequate shelter and transportation places on those already bearing the weight of poverty became more than obvious during interviews conducted for this series of articles. Particularly striking were the cases of a young homeless woman and a self-described "manic depressive" jobless man whose lack of mobility temporarily kept him from badly needed medication.
The recent death of a pedestrian on Interstate 40 possibly could have resulted from the county's lack of shelter and transportation, according to some in the tight-knit community of social workers — government and volunteer — who provide the bulk of the aid offered to those in poverty.
Tragic endings such as that — when combined with the numerous cases local authorities encounter each year in which they suspect poverty to be a contributing factor to death — vividly illustrate just how fragile life can be for those forced to live in the shadows of Wilson County's ongoing economic prosperity.
Yet, the subject of some type of shelter for the poor and homeless is obviously a highly volatile topic among those who work most closely with the poverty stricken, some of whom were reluctant to even discuss it publicly. At the same time, some were skeptical on whether a new, multimillion-dollar commuter rail system — being built primarily with government funds — would provide any real help for those who need low-cost transportation most of all.
Another sad, tragic ending
"If we had some type of transportation that boy probably wouldn't have gotten killed," said Dot Maxey of the 19-year-old struck by an auto recently on I-40.
As head of the local Help Center she along with others had attempted to arrange aid for the young man, who had no place to live and no place to go.
Like all others in the same predicament, when immediate local resources were exhausted he was referred to Nashville's Union Rescue Mission — nearly 30 miles away. Maxey and others believe that may have been his destination when his life was cut short.
Though police were unsure of why the man was on I-40, Lebanon Public Safety Commissioner Billy Weeks acknowledged "it's quite possible."
Weeks said officers who encounter the homeless and others in need of shelter refer them to the Nashville facility, though he was quick to acknowledge it's often little more than a futile gesture.
"I'd be the first to agree with you, referring somebody with no money, no transportation and no real resources to a place 20 or 30 miles away probably isn't doing anybody very much good," he said.
Weeks and others in local law enforcement and emergency services said while statistics don't always reflect it, so-called first responders often believe poverty is a contributing factor in several local deaths each year.
"Our officers see just about every situation you can imagine," he said. "Some of them can be so sad, so tragic."
Sheriff Terry Ashe said he has long believed many elderly residents find existing poor health complicated by a lack of resources because of poverty.
"It's not unusual at all, I don't believe, for somebody's lack of financial resources to end up contributing to their death, especially when it comes to the elderly," he said. "People get down and can't get their medicine, can't even get somebody to come and help them sometimes, or maybe they don't even have enough to keep their home properly heated. Then nobody hears from them and somebody ends up getting worried and they call our department or they'll call an ambulance, and we'll go in and find them. Sometimes it's absolutely heartbreaking."
When it comes to more tangible matters, however, transportation for the low income ranks near the top of several lists.
The head of the local state Department of Human Services office — which provides most of the government support available to those in poverty — was quick to put transportation among the county's biggest needs for low-income residents.
"We need transportation for some people here very badly. I've said that for years," local DHS Director Joanne Smith said. "To me it's one of the most important things. We see that quite often with people in our Families First program. A lot of times someone could have a job, but getting them to that job turns out to be the real problem."
Inadequate transportation for low-income residents "has always been a major problem, right behind education," said Lebanon Housing Authority Director Henry Harding, who oversees the city's three federally funded public housing developments.
"How can you do better, get to school or get to a better job, if you can't get there and back? I've watched that particular problem hold people back for years," Harding said.
Maxey said the closing of Lebanon's last public bus terminal several years ago has made the task of getting those who need shelter to Nashville often near-impossible. And she and Smith expressed doubts the new commuter rail planned to serve Wilson County will provide any relief to those who perhaps need it most.
Though reluctant to discuss it, both wondered aloud how comfortable train operators and their presumed target customers — primarily business commuters — would be when confronted with the sight of those whose poverty is often all too visible. When pressed, Maxey finally remarked, tactfully, many of those referred to the Nashville mission "have some hygiene issues, some of them have physical or emotional problems and … some people could be uncomfortable."
Smith was equally reticent.
"I'm not certain that is what they (commuter rail operators) have in mind," she said softly.
'If we build it, they will come' fears
If the subject of commuter rail's expected lack of impact on those in poverty causes some to speak softly, the subject of whether Wilson County needs a homeless shelter can cause some to shut up entirely.
It's obviously a touchy subject — and locals aren't alone in their hesitancy to approach it, according to one of the area's leading authorities on poverty and its impact.
"What you encounter most often are these fears of what it could possibly bring into a community," Vanderbilt University Professor James Scott said. "It's sort of like, 'If we build it, they will come' fears."
In the end, Scott said, "it's pretty much the norm" for local leaders to fear "the homeless population will only grow if a shelter is built."
And several in the public and private sectors interviewed for this series indicated privately that precisely such fears exist locally.
"I guess there are probably some people who feel like that," Maxey said. "I don't think there's any question about the need for it being there, but I believe some people just feel like it would be such a big thing to take on."
Smith approached the subject even more warily, initially declining to discuss it before saying, "There are homeless people here."
After a pause she added, "I would say we need one but who is going to fund it? It would almost have to be up to the local governments or the private community. It would be a huge undertaking. It would be very costly, and you would absolutely have to have the right people to run it."
Harding noted "we don't even count the number of homeless people we have in country, much less our county" but indicated — albeit cautiously — that he feels the need is there.
"In terms of temporary housing, as opposed to permanent housing, which is the only thing we offer here, that is probably an area in which we're somewhat lacking here," the housing authority director said. "Though, I'm sure not everybody would agree with that."
Scott said eventually, as Wilson County continues growing, a shelter will become a truly viable option only with community consensus.
"The only it way it can be affective is for the community itself to determine what it thinks it needs," he said. "Ultimately, it's a real community decision."
While Scott agreed housing and transportation — along with sound health care and adequate environmental conditions — are key ingredients to battling poverty, he noted there is at least one often-unseen factor at work against those with low incomes.
Credit — or rather a lack of it — often keeps those in poverty from moving their lives to the next level, Scott said, which is something of an ironic observation given Wilson County's thriving banking industry.
"What if a family wants to send a kid to college, which is the real ticket to breaking the cycle of poverty, but they can't afford it?" he said. "Most of us don't recognize how important credit is for the poor, but it's one of the biggest problems. If you're poor you're probably not going to have many rich relatives to borrow from, and if you need to borrow money you either pay exorbitant rates or you don't get to borrow it at all."
Scott said "micro-credit" — a concept he credited to a VU alumnus — can be a financial savior for some stuck in poverty, describing it as "loaning tiny bits of money for no collateral."
"It's revolutionized things in a lot of places, and it continues to work," he said.
Who suffers the most?
Poverty in Wilson County mirrors many other places in Tennessee and across the nation with blacks and families headed by single mothers the two hardest hit segments of the population.
According to U.S. Census Bureau figures covering families living in poverty, 1,182 local families live below federal poverty guidelines.
The statistics show locally, single-mother families are far and away the most afflicted with 26.8 percent — or 549 — of the county's 1,942 such households categorized as living below the poverty level.
For African-American families the picture is only slightly better. According to census figures, 19.1 percent of the county's 1,559 black families live in poverty. By contrast, only 3.6 percent of the county's white families fall below federal poverty standards.
And while the county's overall poverty rate stands at 7.9 percent of its population, children seem to fare slightly worse than the general population, according to census statistics.
Nearly 10 percent — 9.8 percent, or 2,323 members — of the county's population from birth to age 17 live in poverty, the figures indicate while 8.5 percent of those between the ages of 5-17 fall below poverty standards.
Though figures are not broken down by sex, staffers at the local DHS office — which has seen its food stamp program and overall caseload increase tremendously in recent years — said they have no doubt single mothers require the most government aid.
"It's a fact of life here that single mothers struggle," DHS supervisor Margaret Head said. "They have to overcome a lot of barriers, mainly transportation and child care."
A lack of support from absentee fathers is probably the single biggest contributing factor to the woes faced by low-income single moms, she added.
"One of the reasons they struggle is due to a lack of child support," Head said.
Smith said occasionally, a woman's reluctance to seek child support will keep her from entering the state's Families First program, which locally has moved families off entitlements into self-sufficiency at a rate of more than 200 a year for the past several years.
The program relies heavily on education and job training and offers aid for those struggling with issues such as child care, housing, transportation and medical care, but as one of its requirements entrants must be collecting all child support due them.
Smith said sometimes, struggling single moms pass up the program "because they don't want to go after their child support."
"For whatever reason some of them don't want to do it, even though we have about the best district attorney's office in the whole state when it come to child support collection," Smith said.
The economic problems African-Americans have faced not only in Wilson County but throughout the South over the years have been laid to a wide myriad of causes, some of them stretching back over a century, to the period immediately following the end of the Civil War, when the region began a struggle with its racial identity that in some ways continues today.
But perhaps nowhere are the financial struggles of Wilson County's African-Americans better illustrated than in the demographics of the housing authority, which show 448 black residents live in one of the three federally funded public housing developments compared to 213 white residents.
And of those, the figures suggest — perhaps not at all surprisingly — that African-American females need housing assistance in the greatest numbers. According to LHA figures, black females by far comprise the largest segment of society being served by public housing.
According to an LHA demographical study, 171 public housing residents are black females, compared to only 44 black males, 27 white males and 93 white females. A total of only nine Hispanics or Latinos reside in public housing, the figures show.
Senior Staff Writer Brooks Franklin can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 14 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.