Saturday, September 24, 2005

[US Domestic Policy]: Katrina Exposes American Poverty

Saturday September 24, 2005 5:31 PM

AP National Writer

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - ``Let me tell you about abandoned people,'' whispered J.R., his voice rising above the sighs and soft snores of sleepers curled on the church pews around him.

``Those people who were abandoned in New Orleans,'' he said, ``they were abandoned long before that hurricane hit. We all were.''

J.R. (he gave no other name) spends his days with 100 others, embraced in the holy warmth of a magnificent edifice, 103-year-old St. Boniface Church. Sunlight streams through stained glass and gilded saints smile down upon them from the domed ceilings; the smells of their sour, acrid clothes and bodies mix with the lingering scent of incense.

This looks like an evacuation center - row after row of desperate people and their sparse belongings, a backpack here, a blanket there.

But this roomful of displaced people is neither an emergency shelter nor a temporary situation.

This is an ongoing, daily, chronic disaster.

Ordinarily the faces of America's poor are as hidden as their stories. But Hurricane Katrina has spotlighted the deep poverty that this country has failed to solve, a world of people who live without Social Security numbers and without running water, people who are too poor to shop at Wal-Mart and whose children go hungry.

Even as the economy strengthened in 2004, Census Bureau figures show 37 million Americans lived under the poverty line, a jump of 1.1 million from 2003. People living in poverty have, in fact, been increasing steadily in this country since 2001.

For years, advocacy groups and researchers have shouted the statistics: 45.8 million people don't have health insurance; 25 percent of American's blacks (and 44 percent of Houston's) live in poverty; 36 million Americans are hungry or at risk of hunger.

But before Katrina, few wanted to hear any of this, says Reese Fayde, head of Living Cities, a New York-based nonprofit group.

``You are made to feel you are detracting from something good, that you're not patriotic, that you're trying to focus on a niche issue,'' she said. ``Poverty didn't happen overnight, but now it's as if someone lifted up a rock and wow, there they are, all those poor people!''

Rev. Cecil Williams, a veteran social activist who leads San Francisco's Glide Memorial Church, said he keeps getting calls from people who say: ``'Not only did we not know there was so much poverty, but also that so many of these poor people were black.'''

It's frustrating, said Williams. ``We've been there all along.''

But in many cases, poverty is ``invisible,'' said Rosemary Cubas, who lives in one of Philadelphia's poorest neighborhoods. She said that on her block, four or five families share one-bedroom apartments.

``You don't see our poor because we don't let them sleep on park benches or homeless shelters. We just squeeze in, and everyone is overcrowded and underfed.''

For those who have been living in poverty, and those who have been trying to fight it, the current air of surprise about this chronic disaster is both frustrating and amusing. For some it's also, perhaps, a glimmer of hope.

``I do wonder whether this is one of those moments where, as this country reflects on its values, there's an opportunity for change, for movement,'' said Olivia Golden, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute in Washington D.C.

The country could put Katrina behind it and move forward as if nothing happened, said Omowale Satterwhite of the Oakland, Calif.-based National Community Development Institute.

``The other possibility is that the soul of the country gets touched and the entire country is in a dialogue, trying to discover a common truth about who we are and who we want to be,'' he said.

For the complete article, go to:,1280,-5299890,00.html

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