NPR

A City Steps Up: Savannah Confronts Poverty

Savannah, Ga., is one of the oldest and loveliest cities in America. Called "the Little Easy" for its charming historic district and hospitality, Savannah nonetheless grapples with stubborn poverty and crime higher than that of many larger cities.

Easing poverty is a mainstay of the city's agenda. The mayor says the city can't solve its problems unless government, businesses and low-income residents all cooperate to confront the entrenched reasons for poverty.

Each month, the city sponsors "poverty simulations" to raise awareness among its citizens. Government leaders, heads of businesses and civic groups spend an evening role-playing as people living in, or on the brink of, poverty.

The experience has inspired some participants to join the city's anti-poverty effort, called "STEP UP." Currently, volunteers are working with the city to address the needs of 25 impoverished families in an integrated way. That means addressing health and day care needs, job training and transportation.

The city intends for STEP UP to act as a model for serving dozens -- and perhaps hundreds -- of poor families in coming years.

This is the first installment in which NPR visits places in America that are helping people fight persistent poverty in a wealthy nation.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

We've been exploring what it means to be poor in America.

Unidentified Woman: When you walk through this door, you're no longer who you are at this moment; you're who you are in the state of poverty.

INSKEEP: This woman speaks of poverty almost as the 51st state, home to 37 million Americans and a close neighbor to millions more. She's about to usher some middle class Americans across the border for a visit.

Unidentified Woman: Remember that you are a family unit doing your best to survive.

INSKEEP: As soon as they step into a meeting hall, three dozen people will simulate being poor.

Unidentified Woman: And remember your goals, to keep your home, feed your family; if you have a job, it's to go to work. Do you have any questions so far?

INSKEEP: We've had a lot of questions since Hurricane Katrina exposed some grim neighborhoods in the state of poverty. In the coming weeks, we'll visit other places to learn how people fight persistent poverty in a wealthy nation. Today, we'll explore one city's effort, which begins with that poverty simulation. We'll attend it in a moment, as we tour Savannah, Georgia.

Unidentified Woman: Savannah does have the largest historic district of any place in the United States, at 2.2 square miles.

INSKEEP: Here is the Savannah that the world knows. We're on a tour bus going through narrow streets with overhanging trees. It's the setting for the book and the movie Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

Unidentified Woman: The Gastonian was voted one of the 10 best inns in America. Their rooms start at $350 a night.

INSKEEP: We planned our own tour of Savannah, where poverty and crime rates are above the national average. One of our stops was a Town Hall meeting, where Mayor Otis Johnson referred to shabby neighborhoods that surround the historic district.

Mayor OTIS JOHNSON (Savannah, Georgia): We should be ashamed, one in every five Savannians living at or below the poverty level, when we have this image of such a prosperous city.

INSKEEP: The second black mayor in Savannah's long history is a former college professor.

Mayor JOHNSON: Holler me down if I'm lying. I'm telling you the truth.

INSKEEP: He wants to educate his constituents using that poverty simulation, which is the next stop on our tour.

Ms. ELIZABETH LLOYD (Director of Simulations, Savannah Anti-Poverty Program): We're ready for you to come in. Just find a chair. Find yourself your new home.

INSKEEP: Elizabeth Lloyd directs the simulations that form one part of Savannah's anti-poverty program. Every month a fresh group of business leaders, government workers and other volunteers receive papers with new identities.

Ms. NANCY WELCHER (Actress): I work 40 hours a week, which includes weekends.

Nancy Welcher becomes a divorced man. Other participants become her children.

Ms. LLOYD: You're eight. You have learning disabilities, an asthmatic. You're three and in childcare full-time; and you're active in sports. All right, are you ready?

INSKEEP: Newly impoverished Savannians wander among the tables at the edges of the room. Each table represents a workplace, store or social services office.

Unidentified Woman #2: Okay, I'm going to have to charge you a 10 percent fee for having this check cashed.

INSKEEP: Volunteers play bureaucrats or cashiers and interact with the likes of Nancy Welcher.

Ms. WELCHER: I got to get to work.

INSKEEP: Her character faces the same problems that anybody would. She just has fewer resources.

Ms. WELCHER: I need to put the child in daycare, but I haven't been able to get cash to pay for the daycare.

INSKEEP: What's your job?

Ms. WELCHER: I work in a hospital as a nursing assistant.

INSKEEP: How much did they pay you last week?

Ms. WELCHER: $297.00.

INSKEEP: And why don't you have any money?

Ms. WELCHER: Because I couldn't get my check cashed.

INSKEEP: Which is hard, because like many poor people, her character has no checking account, which means no direct deposit, which means she stands in the line at the bank.

Unidentified Child: Mom, I'm hungry.

INSKEEP: While her simulated three-year old demands attention and closing time nears.

Ms. WELCHER: No, you're cashing my check. Cash my check.

Unidentified Woman #3: No, the week is over. I can't help you.

Ms. WELCHER: Because you can't count?

Unidentified Woman #3: I can't help you.

INSKEEP: Nancy Welcher spends so much time juggling her daily life that she misses work and gets fired and argues with others who are just as bad at being poor.

Ms. WELCHER: Excuse me, lady, there's a line. I was here when they closed yesterday.

(Soundbite of people shouting)

INSKEEP: Okay, it's just over one hour of imitation poverty, yet when participants return to their comfortable lives, some remember a frustration that felt very real.

Mr. MICHAEL KEMP (Banker): I had no clue.

INSKEEP: Michael Kemp is exactly the kind of person the city wants to have a clue. He's a banker who took the simulation last year.

Mr. KEMP: I was totally blown away. I had no clue as to what a person in poverty deals with until I went to the simulation.

INSKEEP: It's interesting to realize that this was all so surprising to you, because this is a very compact metropolitan area. You can be in a beautiful neighborhood, go a couple of blocks, and you're in a very poor neighborhood.

Mr. KEMP: And it's not surprising to me that there are poor people. What was surprising to me was what those people deal with on a daily basis. You've got to get someplace before it closes, but your only transportation is the bus, and the bus may not get there before then. You run into another person in your neighborhood; he holds you up, because he needs some money for his family.

INSKEEP: What did you do when you left the simulation?

Mr. KEMP: Well, when I left the simulation, I contacted some of the simulation leaders and I said we can't' leave it here. What's the next step? And I'm in.

INSKEEP: This is the next step in Savannah's fight against poverty. Banker Michael Kemp joined one of several city teams that work to solve basic problems. To a businessman, better transportation or dependent care can mean better employees, or even better customers.

Mr. KEMP: I mean, we've got 20-somehting percent of our population that can't use our services. Why would we not want them to be successful so they can having checking accounts with us?

INSKEEP: And is it your job, as the business representative, to go back to other businesspeople and say, we need money for this, we need you to change your practices in this way, we need...

Mr. KEMP: Bingo. My job is to talk to the large employers and say, you can help create accredited daycare, and we need to do that to help develop the best workforce that we possibly can. And it's also my job to make sure we provide measurable outcomes. Businesspeople, bottom-line oriented. You know, they look down and say, okay, tell me what we did with this money we put in there.

INSKEEP: That demand for results leads to the next stop on our tour of Savannah, a stop where the city faces a hard question about poverty.

Unidentified Man: Come on.

INSKEEP: The question is how much a government can do for people whose real problems are even more complicated than the simulation.

(Soundbite of a child crying)

Ms. JOYCELYN JENNINGS(ph): Uh oh. You want a cookie?

INSKEEP: The city hopes to focus its efforts on places like this public housing complex, where concrete buildings stand sickly yellow in the sun.

An apartment here is home to Joycelyn Jennings and her family.

Ms. JENNINGS: If you walk around, maybe around in here, the universal sign for drug trade, they have sneakers hanging on their electric lines. Wherever you find a pair of sneakers throwed across the electric line, usually somebody in that particular area sell drugs. I have a ten-year-old and a two-year-old. Whose to know if they're outside, these people riding by and they're shooting, my kids get shot?

INSKEEP: Four days a week, Jennings stays home with the kids. Three days a week, she drives a taxi. She picks up people in the historic district.

Ms. JENNINGS: Good morning.

Unidentified Woman: How are you?

INSKEEP: They're tourists and business people whose lives she can barely imagine.

Ms. JENNINGS: Are you guys going to the airport?

Unidentified Woman: Airport, yes. Thank you.

INSKEEP: One day, the city's anti-poverty director got into the cab, and what happened next was a little like you'd imagine the discovery of an actor. He discovered Joycelyn Jennings, and asked her to join a program focusing on 25 representative poor families. The city plans to coordinate its efforts, help this small group out of poverty, and learn lessons that apply to thousands of Savannians.

Ms. JENNINGS: Actually, I really don't know much about the program. What's wrong? But whatever it is they tell me I need to do, I'm willing and able to do whatever it is I have to do.

INSKEEP: It will not be easy, which becomes clear when Jennings tells her story. She doesn't have much education. She has diabetes. She doesn't have a husband. She has a criminal record for forging welfare checks years ago. And, she doesn't have good credit.

Ms. JENNINGS: Come on, get up off the floor.

INSKEEP: In addition to her own sons, she's caring for two children of her cousin...

Ms. JENNINGS: Get up.

INSKEEP: ...whom Jennings describes as a crack addict.

Ms. JENNINGS: I have to get out of this place.

INSKEEP: Joycelyn Jennings thinks of the tourists who ride with her to and from the airport.

Ms. JENNINGS: I would just love to get on a plane someday and say that I can take, and afford to take, all my children. And we just get on a plane and go somewhere.

INSKEEP: First, she has to take a journey out of poverty. The city of Savannah has set a goal to take that journey with her, no matter where it might lead.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: You can find out more about poverty simulations at our website, npr.org. This is the start of a series, and in next week's story, we talk to teenagers.

RYAN: I don't want to be an at-risk youth. I just want to be Ryan, the adult.

(Soundbite of music)

You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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