Residents encouraged to speak on barriers and challenges affecting their lives
On Aug. 16, Melissa Hidek went to the People’s African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church to participate in the fourth and final listening session hosted by the Greater Syracuse Health, Opportunity, Prosperity and Empowerment (HOPE) Initiative.
An hour into the meeting there were 43 people in attendance, all adults. Dismayed by the absence of adolescents, Hidek, a grant coordinator at the nonprofit PEACE Inc., said, “We need to get the neighborhood youth involved in this process in order to solicit their input before they go back to school.”
Suddenly, a rumbling noise interruptted her speech. The audience swelled to 59 people, a 37 percent increase.
The Syracuse Elite Basketball Program was now in the house. Fifteen boys and girls in basketball garb and their coach had burst into the meeting room.
Coach Charles Williams said that the players were late because they had been engaged in a ball game in a gym until half an hour ago.
He added that some of the goals of the program was to deter youngsters from getting involved in violence and to prepare them for sport competition at the college level, but that the program’s current funding is low. “We play games all over town, and we require funding to get from point A to point B,” he told the attendees. “Besides prayer, we need help with transportation.”
Coach Williams, who said that his day job is as a youth and children’s advocate at Family Court, seemed to have come to the right place to air his concerns as transportation was one of the themes covered at the AME Zion Church session.
Prior to the team’s arrival, the two meeting facilitators, Helen Hudson, Syracuse Common Councilor At-Large, and Michael Collins, executive director of the Syracuse Northeast Community Center, had introduced Rick Lee to the public.
Lee, chief executive officer of the Central New York Regional Transportation Authority (Centro), fielded questions from two residents.
Charles Pierce-El, 71, said that people who live in a poverty-stricken area and senior citizens like himself, as well as citizens with disabilities, need vouchers for transportation. He then requested that “the busing system be made more accessible location-wise in order to pick up riders where they are.”
Clifford Ryan followed Pierce-El. Ryan asked Lee to address the fact that the bus fare has risen and the bus service has been reduced.
“The service is down and the fare is $2 now,” Ryan said.
“The last fare increase was in 2011 and the service cuts are for routes that are not highly utilized,” Lee replied. “The fare collected by Centro represents only 23 percent of its overall revenue. When we raise fares we face diminishing returns because more people can’t afford the rides.”
Hudson encouraged the participants to talk about the barriers and challenges that are affecting their lives so that they could receive help to overcome them and move forward.
She said that HOPE was formed in response to Rutgers professor Paul Jargowsky’s report on poverty in Syracuse.
“We’re higher than the national average in every poverty category,” Hudson said, “We have to figure out how to work together to solve the poverty problem.” Collins, her co-facilitator, added, “We are raising a big orange finger saying ‘we are number one in poverty.'”
Then the conversation turned to the topic of education.
“Children who go to the Liverpool school district have better resources than those on the South Side,” said Gwendolyn Mack, a retired special education teacher in the Syracuse City School District. “We need a resource bible to show our youth how to get started, to teach them how to help themselves.”
“Our education system has failed us. Ninety-five percent of children of the South Side, if given an opportunity, will come out of the corners. Children don’t have anyone to turn to and, at the same time, there are opportunities not being utilized such as training by retired construction journeymen,” Pierce-El added. “One of the things we have lost in our community is loving our children. Our poverty is by design.”
Collins suggested promoting policy changes to help address the critical issue of poverty.
“First, policy changes at the federal and state level. Secondly, policy changes at the county and city level, followed by changes in practice and, finally, in regulations,” he said.
HOPE sponsored “listening sessions with citizens living in the areas of the city where poverty is most concentrated,” according to its media release. The one on the South Side, at the AME Zion Church, located at 2306 S. Salina St., was preceded by three: on July 19 at the North Side Learning Center; on July 26 at the Boys & Girls Club (East Side), and; on Aug. 9 at St. Lucy’s Church (Near West Side). A preliminary wrap-up discussion was held Aug. 16 in the City Hall Commons Atrium, which was led by HOPE’s three co-chairs: Frank Lazarski, president of United Way of Central New York; Sharon Owens, chief executive of the Syracuse Model Neighborhood Facility, and Hudson, who is also labor liaison at the United Way.
The other agencies affiliated with HOPE are: CNY Community Foundation, CNY Fair Housing, Harvest Christian Church, Literacy Coalition of Onondaga County, New York State Department of Labor, Northeast Community Center, Onondaga County Health Department, Spanish Action League, Syracuse City School District, Syracuse Community Health Center, Syracuse Trauma Response Team and Visions for Change.
At the AME Zion Church meeting, Noble Jennings-Bey lamented the absence of neighbors living in poverty.
“When you talk about the face of poverty, people in poverty need to be here, but they are not; they are in survival mode. They say ‘we don’t have the time,'” he told the public.
“We have been begging people to come to connect them to the resources. Residents who need the resources the most are not here,” Hudson answered. “We must try to pull them out of where they are to shepherd them through.”
– By Miguel Balbuena, community correspondent for The Stand