Part of what inspired me to create the Community Empowerment Initiative was the observation that longstanding federal policy toward ending poverty yielded—at best—the most marginal of improvements.
Here in Washington, far too often we focus our attention and resources on the funding levels of federal programs rather than on their effect on the people that we serve. And while these programs provide a useful and often essential service to those most in need, in President Lyndon Johnson’s fifty-three-year-long “War on Poverty,” the poverty rate has fallen only five percent – from 19% in 1964 to 14% in 2015. When the data indicate little to no achievement, it’s time to move past antiquated ideas and begin implementing innovative and effective strategies to combat poverty.
As the CEI continues to grow, I am finding that many of the best strategies for overcoming a life of poverty and moving from hopelessness to hope come from our successful non-profits. In Little Rock, Our House Shelter is a leader in attacking one of the most upsetting aspects of poverty: homelessness of children. While founded thirty years ago as a shelter, Our House has expanded to address many of the needs that plague so many who walk through its doors, including GED instruction, job training, and child care.
The rate of child poverty in Arkansas is higher than the national average, and studies show that growing up in poverty increases the probability that children will suffer developmental problems and miss their potential. One of the most visible aspects of child poverty is homelessness. In Arkansas, child and family homelessness is a serious problem that needs to be in the consciousness of everyone in our community.. Arkansas has the third highest rate in the country for child homelessness, with over 21,000 of our smallest and most vulnerable citizens experiencing homelessness each year.
However, that number would be greater without organizations like Our House and their innovative homelessness-prevention program, the Central Arkansas Family Stability Institute (CAFSI). Two years ago, Sharonica Lee was in a tough spot. She was working at a hair salon and taking care of her two kids, with another on the way. But she wasn’t making enough money to make ends meet. And she had no benefits and no paid time off. She was behind on her rent, and her family was going to lose their house and become homeless if she didn’t do something.
Rep. Hill reading to children during a visit Our House.
A friend recommended that she talk to Our House. So she met with one of Our House’s case managers, and she joined the homelessness prevention program. Our House helped her find a job that paid better and offered benefits, including paid time off. Her eight-year-old daughter, Laronica, began going to Our House’s out-of-school-time program every day after school, where she’s in the youth leadership program. Our House also helped Sharonica line up child care vouchers so her three-year old Rico could attend a quality child care program, giving her the ability to work a full-time job.
Recently, Sharonica has been training for a new career through the Food Jobs Work program offered on the Our House campus in partnership with University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College and the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub. She recently graduated with a culinary arts certificate, and she has several interviews lined up for jobs that would help her build a satisfying, family-supporting career.
Sharonica Lee and her family at Our House.
Sharonica and her family not only avoided homelessness with Our House’s help, they have built a strong and stable foundation for their own pursuit of the American Dream. She is even working with Our House case managers right now on a plan to buy her home--the same home they have been renting for years and nearly lost two years ago. And her family is just one of hundreds that Our House has a life-changing impact on each year.
Representative French Hill