A Miami youth whose life had been paralyzed by poverty and the criminal justice system spoke openly in October last year regarding her plight. While stealing food to feed both herself and a 2-year-old sibling, she was arrested and charged with theft. With no income or support system, she was left hopeless and unable to retain legal counsel or sufficiently advocate for herself.
Previously homeless adults who had been thrust in and out of foster care through their formative years shared similar struggles. Most of their short life span had been dedicated to navigating complex systems for survival — daily battles to simply exist as respectable citizens in society.
These crisis-driven scenarios — and formidable solutions to prevent them — were among the personal narratives shared during the Miami launch of the American Bar Association’s (ABA) anti-poverty initiative titled, “Collaborate to Advocate: Lawyers and Communities Working Together to end Poverty.”
A Stigma Defined
Poverty is arguably a dual contender with race as America’s most important conversation in the millennium. And as the national representative of the legal profession, the ABA has embraced poverty in America as one of its foremost priorities.
A common American stigma, poverty is often misconstrued by language and assumption. The varied vernacular used to describe the impoverished ranges from economically challenged, poor, disenfranchised, dispossessed and indigent. To best advance the “Collaborate to Advocate” initiative, the ABA applied the working definition for poverty as follows:
“A state or lived experience caused and perpetuated by various and often compounded factors including inadequate economic resources and opportunity to build assets, including employment, adequate income and assets to meet basic human needs such as food, housing, clothing, etc.”
Cause and Effect
The ABA cites an ongoing trend of “societal, economic and political events,” as well as analysis of them, as contributors and catalysts. They include America’s 2007 economic meltdown, the mortgage foreclosure epidemic, Trayvon Martin, Hurricane Katrina, Ferguson, Missouri, Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” 9/11, the “school to prison pipeline,” and unaccompanied minors coming across the border.
They each have played a role in the number of children living in poverty as well as the disparate treatment and impacts of the law and justice systems on communities of color.
Manifestations of poverty include substandard and unaffordable housing and homelessness; disproportionate involvement in criminal and civil justice systems; inadequacies in food, health care and poor educational and health outcomes. Two of the least considered, yet relevant, poverty manifestations include lack of personal dignity and isolation from community and political infrastructure.
Miami’s Impoverished Blacks
Blacks and “people of color” are faced with barriers and obstacles to justice such as disability, limited English proficiency, immigrant status and other factors at a rate higher than any other demographic.
Nearly 50 million Americans now live below the federal poverty line. In Florida, 17 percent of people in the state have incomes below the poverty line — $23,834 for a family of four, according to the 2014 U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey. In Miami-Dade County alone, 20 percent of residents are living below the poverty line and 30 percent of them are Black.
The latter statistic is further compounded for impoverished Blacks who additionally suffer education, employment and criminal justice disparity. In Miami-Dade, Black youth enter the judicial system due to school arrests at a 58 percent disproportionate rate to their White counterparts.
Advocacy and intervention by the ABA will be integral in breaking cyclic patterns that begin with poverty and too often end with a life of crime.
Commission on Poverty
The ABA has established the Commission on Poverty and Homelessness as a governing body for the “Collaborate to Advocate” initiative. On Oct. 2, a committed panel of community and philanthropic liaisons gathered at the University of Miami School of Law for the first of many nationally scheduled anti-poverty community roundtable discussions.
“This convening serves as our official launch of the commission’s new, multi-year initiative,” said Ted Small, chair of the ABA Commission on Poverty and Homelessness. “The initiative is aimed at identifying and promoting best practices for eliminating legal and justice system-related policies, practices and procedures that unfairly perpetuate or worsen the harmful effects of poverty in low-income communities.”
Panelists in attendance collectively represented the voices of anti-poverty expertise from the state and local government, service providers, religious, academic, political and legal communities.
Included were Amy E. Horton-Newell, director, Commission on Homelessness & Poverty; Oliver G. Gilbert III, mayor of Miami Gardens; Lars Gilberts, United Way of Broward County, (Director, ALICE); Barbara “Bobbie” Ibarra, executive director, Miami Coalition for the Homeless; Paco Velez, president and CEO, of Feeding South Florida and a host of others.
“I am happy we are finally thinking about the generational causes and effects of poverty. Far too often we treat poverty like a headache that we can get rid of; take two special programs and call me in the morning,” Mayor Gilbert said. “It’s more like a genetic predisposition that can be planned for and planned around. But it all begins with diagnosing it and treating it like it is something real that won’t just go away because we want it to.”
The goal of each roundtable is to bring together a consortium of 10-15 community stakeholders. Kele Stewart, a professor and associate dean of experiential learning at the University of Miami School of Law, served as moderator and led the consortium through an interview-style dialogue.
Queries posed included, “How can those who are already addressing poverty in Miami/Dade-Fort Lauderdale/Broward work more collaboratively and in a cross-disciplinary fashion?”
“This [roundtable] was a good start to identifying synergies and shared priorities that will hopefully lead to collaborative initiatives,” Stewart said.
“The roundtable also included powerful insights from community advocates who have themselves experienced first-hand the harsh realities of homelessness and community displacement in Miami,” Stewart added.
The four-hour, Miami anti-poverty roundtable discussion informally “kicked-off” an ongoing collaboration of community representatives. Most panelists work in tandem on a regular basis, but the roundtable provided a forum for future motivation.
“What I walked away with most was the exposure to actual youth and adults who had experienced poverty and homelessness,” offered Brett McNaught, CEO and founder of Educate Tomorrow.
“They were able to give roundtable guests and the commission some real firsthand stories and experiences. I think the take away is they all found value from having support from a mentor, coach, or someone in the community organization who had taken time to get to know them and help them get out of situations,” McNaught added.
Future poverty roundtables include one in San Diego, which was scheduled for Feb. 5, as well as a variety of communities in Alabama (spring 2016), two communities in Oklahoma (including a rural convening with tribal representation) and San Francisco (Aug. 5 — with the possible addition of a convening with farmworkers in northern California).
Penny Dickerson, a 2015 Equal Voice Journalism Fellow, is a freelance journalist. Her fellowship stories were published in the Florida Courier, Daytona Times and Miami Times, where this story first appeared. For her fellowship, she reported from Tallahassee, Jacksonville, Daytona and Miami. This story received support from Marguerite Casey Foundation, which sponsors the fellowship and publishes Equal Voice News. New America Media helped administer the fellowship. This story has been updated to give the correct spelling for Tiffaney Langhorne’s name.
2016 © Equal Voice for America’s Families Newspaper