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Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Thinking about helping people in "microfinance"-type ways

While there is a lot of writing about "microfinance" initiatives in the Third World--microfinance being a system to provide very small loans to entrepreneurs lacking the collateral necessary to have access to traditional loans-- it's hard to make microfinance work in the US in terms of fostering "entrepreneurship," because the costs of entry here tend to be so much higher and the economy is much more "formal" as opposed to "informal."

But why couldn't we think of applying "microfinance" approaches to social and human services, and stepping in with small amounts of money to provide help in targeted ways when otherwise they are facing barriers, so that those people helped can still get to work, keep working, stay in a house or apartment, keep a family together instead of pushing children into foster care?, etc.

Small amounts of money could make a big difference in terms of keeping a person or family stable.

In fact it is comparable to the idea now in homeless services that it is cheaper to provide people with housing even if they don't avail themselves of other services, because the cost of providing emergency services to "frequent users" is so much more expensive ("An innovative, practical solution for preserving the health and well-being of the homeless," Boston Globe).

Benicia, Calif., police officers surprise Jourdan Duncan with a bike after finding out he walked more than four hours to and from work. (Courtesy Benicia Police Department)

1. Buying a young adult a bike to use to get to and from work.  The Washington Post reported recently ("This teenager was walking for hours to and from work — until a police stop changed his life") about how a police officer in Benicia, California got his colleagues to fund the purchase of a bicycle for a young adult, Jourdan Duncan, who spent hours each day walking to and from work, including late at night after his work shift ended. His car had broken down and he didn't have the money to fix it.  From the article:
... to Cpl. Kirk Keffer of the Benicia Police Department, who was patrolling that area that September night, the sight of a lone pedestrian in that part of town after 11 p.m. was startling.

“Usually in the industrial area there’s no foot traffic, so it was kind of weird to see someone walking around on foot,” Keffer told The Post then.  He stopped his patrol car and called out to Duncan to ask if he was okay.

Duncan explained to Keffer he was walking seven miles home, just as he did every day. Shocked, Keffer cleared out the passenger seat in his patrol car and offered Duncan a ride home. On the ride home, Keffer got to know the teenager ... By the time Keffer pulled up to Duncan’s parents’ house that night — all of 15 minutes later, by car — the police officer was impressed. He commended Duncan on his work ethic, dropped him off and drove back to the station. ...

Keffer mentioned his interaction to his shift supervisor, who, like Keffer, happened to be a board member of the Benicia Police Officers’ Association. “So I hit him up and say, ‘I just had this cntact with this young man,’ ” Keffer said then. ” ‘He’s walking five hours a day, and I think it should be rewarded. What if we help him out?’ ”

They emailed the rest of the board to seek approval to buy a bicycle. It was, he said, one of the fastest votes they’ve ever taken.
The story updates us on Jourdan's life since this was first reported on last fall. Other donations enabled him to buy a cheap used car, and this term, he started college at Solano Community College.

Note that more credit unions are offering loan programs to assist people with buying a bike. (See "Eight "mutual assistance programs" that can build support for biking as transportation on the part of low income communities.")

2.  Fixing up a house so a grandmother can keep her grandchildren out of foster care.  The Toronto Star reports ("Meet the grandma who lost 3 grandkids over a home that needed repairs") on a situation in Toronto where a grandmother tried to take in her daughter's three children, but because of the substandard condition of the house, the social worker couldn't approve the placement, instead sending them into high cost child care.

It would have been much cheaper for social services to pay for repairs to the house, but the system isn't set up to work that way.

Fortunately, friends and neighbors stepped in.  The repairs cost $3,000.  By contrast it costs about $17,000 per child in foster care--at the cost of $3,000 the province could save $47,000.

From the story:
Children whose families ran out of money for housing were twice as likely to be taken from their parents and placed with foster parents or group homes, according to an analysis of Ontario children taken into care in 2013. Similar rates were found for families who ran out of money for food or for utilities.

Another study by leading child welfare researchers, published in February, found that Ontario child protection workers noted “unsafe housing conditions” in almost 4,000 cases they investigated in 2013. (On average, 15,625 Ontario children were in foster or group-home care in 2014-15.)
3.  House repairs.  There are actually many programs in the US, some publicly supported (usually called Housing Services), and others volunteer (Rebuilding Together) that assist low income residents, seniors, and the disabled with housing repairs. (See "One element typically ignored in housing policy: helping low income families stay in their homes via repair assistance.")

In other writings I've suggested that initiatives like these could be developed in neighborhoods going through rapid demographic change, as a way to build bridges between new and old residents.

There is a documentary, more than ten years old, called "Flag Wars," about "gentrification" in the Olde Towne East neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio, full of huge Victorian frame houses, how the neighborhood was experiencing an influx of white, mostly Gay residents, in an area that had been historically black.

One of the problems for older poorer residents is that the houses are huge and costly and expensive to maintain, even for people who are well off.

One of the sub-themes was how certain "new" residents were very active in calling housing code enforcement on households, usually older and black, where the properties weren't being properly maintained or had "outsider art"-like elements.

For a variety of reasons, there was tremendous animosity towards the new residents on the part of the legacy residents.


Journey Christian Church volunteer Don Biggs and other church members donated their efforts to work on the house of Estherine Bell in Richmond's Fulton neighborhood as part of the 50 home daylong annual event by Rebuilding Together of Richmond. - JOE MAHONEY, Richmond Times-Dispatch.

I wondered why instead of fostering animosity, couldn't the new residents have worked to build better relationships with older residents by helping them out and organizing a home repair assistance program, a kind of "Amish barn raising" program or the equivalent of the housing improvement programs done by various Rebuilding Together affiliates.

That would have gone a long way towards community building and would improve the neighborhood for everyone, without regard to household income.

4.  Clothes and housewares.  There are many examples of "clothes boutiques" being set up to provide people of lesser means with the right apparel for work.  In Silver Spring, Maryland, the nonprofit A Wider Circle provides furniture and other household items to people moving from homelessness to standard housing.

Conclusion. Granted, in many situations there are multiple issues, and lack of transportation or needing repairs to a house may be the least of it. Still, in those situations where the barriers are more financial than behavioral, small "microfinance"-like initiatives could make a big difference.

But not only the money is a barrier, so too is the difficulty for public agencies and social service organizations to think differently about how they do their work, and the "critical path" elements that they can address, to ward off an escalating spiral of instability and expense.

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