Thursday, October 11, 2007

Ward representation - Now's our chance

Fate of ward representation bill in the hands of voters

Registered voters will have the opportunity to officially vote yes or no on Question #1 Nov. 6.Reminder Publications photo by Natasha Clark

By Natasha Clark

Assistant Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD Gov. Deval Patrick has given the green light for a binding referendum question to be placed on the Nov. 6 ballot allowing city voters to decide if the Springfield City Council and School Committee will have ward representation.

Last Monday, the governor signed the bill just ahead of its state mandated deadline 35 days before the election in order to be put on the ballot.

On Oct. 2, members of Arise for Social Justice and others from the community gathered on the steps of City Hall to celebrate what has been for some, a long fight.

City Council candidate Vera O'Connor said she has been in support of ward representation since the 1980s.

"[Ward representation] makes people more aware of the community and what we need to improve," O'Connor stated. "This is a tool for improvement."

The city has eight wards and currently operates under "Plan A," which entails councilors being elected at large, nine on the City Council and seven (including the mayor) on the School Committee.

The recently approved Question #1 proposes the City Council be comprised of 13 members one from each of the eight wards, elected by the voters of that ward, and five to be elected at large by all the voters of the city and that the School Committee include seven members, including the mayor. The committee would include one member from each of the districts formed by the following combined wards: one and three; four and five; six and seven; two and eight; and two members to be elected at large from all the voters of the city.

Springfield Democratic Committee Chair E. Henry Twiggs thanked everyone who had been involved with the bill, including state Sen. Stephen Buoniconti, state Rep. Angelo Puppolo and state Rep. Benjamin Swan.

Rev. Talbot Swan said when he began working on getting the bill passed his "two daughters were in second grade and now they're both sophmores in college. It's been a long time."

Candice Lopes, aide to Buoniconti, said, "He's committed to this legislation. Today is the beginning toward the push of Nov. 6. [We] thank Arise for not giving up."

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Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Almost half of Springfield's children live in poverty

Poverty figures prompt action

Sunday, October 07, 2007,By SUZANNE McLAUGHLIN
SPRINGFIELD - The release of U.S. Census Bureau figures showing that 44.6 percent of people under age 18 in Springfield lived below the federal poverty line in 2006 has prompted the president of the United Way of Pioneer Valley to call for a meeting of human service providers to discuss a strategy to address child poverty.

Joel F. Weiss, president and chief executive officer of the United Way of Pioneer Valley, said he has invited representatives from area mayor's offices, the business community, human services and civic groups to a Friday meeting to develop a systemic approach to address child poverty.

Weiss said he sees the meeting as the first of a series of meetings.

Timothy W. Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, said federal census figures showed that in 1999, 31.6 percent of children from 5 to 17 years old lived in poverty in Springfield, while in 2006 the figure had climbed to 44.6 percent.

The census survey was based on a sampling of residents, so the rate has a large margin of error. Census officials said Springfield's actual rate could vary from 38.3 to 50.9 percent.

Weiss said an explanation for the high child poverty rate in Springfield is the large number of residents lacking skills and education for higher paying jobs.

Brennan said worker shortages are forecast in the region by 2011 and 2012 as retirees vacate jobs. Workers with education are needed to replace them, he said.

"The most effective way to ensure a work force is to impact the pre-K through 12 educational system," he said.

He said Gov. Deval L. Patrick has an initiative for universal pre-K education in the state and free community college for those who cannot pay.

Mary E. McGovern Walachy, executive director of the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation, said the charitable foundation has a yearly Cherish Every Child initiative which allocates between $200,000 and $300,000 annually to focus on the following goals: to provide early education, to provide better training and early childhood educators, to make health and dental care available to all families, to develop an annual report card on the quality of life for children and to raise public awareness.

There is a statewide campaign to increase the number of early childhood teachers with bachelor's degrees, Walachy said.

She said the goal is to have one qualified bachelor's degree teacher in every state accredited pre-school classroom.

Kathy Treglia, vice president of the YMCA of Greater Springfield, said her agency held a staff meeting to discuss the apparent increase in the child poverty statistics for Springfield.

"We are a poor community. These statistics say we are poorer than we thought." She said the purpose for the staff meeting was for staff members to discuss how the YMCA can impact child poverty.

Treglia said there are state scholarships available for pre-school teachers who have matriculated in a program to earn a college degree. "Education is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty," Treglia said. She said families in poverty also need financial literacy skills.

Paul Bailey, executive director of Springfield Partners for Community Action, said the things that impact poverty include "lack of employment opportunities, lack of education and lack of financial assets."

He said Springfield Partners for Community Action supports income tax assistance programs so residents claim their proper deductions and refunds and can put away some money if possible.

Walachy said Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution has found that increased education, increased marriage and increased work reduces poverty.

The sequence of events to reduce poverty would include finishing high school, or better still get a college degree, wait until your 20s to marry, and delay having children until after you marry and at least one parent is stably employed.

Walachy said the teen pregnancy rate in Springfield at 18 percent is three times the state average of 5.9 percent.

She said a lack of hope and a lack of vision prevents the poor from attaining their goals.

©2007 The Republican
© 2007 All Rights Reserved.
graphic from Pomona University
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Homeless families reach record levels

Homeless families reach record levels

Monday, October 08, 2007
By PAT EATON-ROBBAssociated Press

AMHERST - Lisa Rivera likes her room at the Jessie's House homeless shelter.

There is just enough space to fit the full-sized bed she shares with her 9-year-old daughter, the pullout trundle for her 11-year-old son, the twin bed her 14-year-old daughter sleeps in and the playpen for her 1-year-old.

"It's comfortable, but it's hard sleeping all together," the 32-year-old woman said. "Oh my God, sometimes it's so hard."

Faced with domestic abuse, high housing costs and unemployment, Rivera's family finds itself among the growing ranks of the homeless in Massachusetts.

The state reports that about 1,800 homeless families were in Massachusetts shelters last week - up from 1,400 in June 2006 and just under 1,200 in June 2005. There are more families in shelters now than at any time since the inception of the state's family shelter program in 1983, according to the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless.

State officials blame a wide range of problems for the jump - from cuts in assistance to the recent housing crisis - and worry there's no end in sight.

"We're very concerned that this is going to keep going," said Julia Kehoe, commissioner of the state Department of Transitional Assistance.

Massachusetts is one of the few states that actually keep government records of the number of homeless families in shelters because state law requires the commonwealth to shelter any family that meets income and other guidelines. The state keeps a daily count to show how many beds it needs, said Robyn Frost, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless.
Nationally, the picture is much less clear.

Data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development suggests there about 750,000 homeless in the nation on any given night, with about 40 percent of those members of homeless families, said Philip Mangano, director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.

The overall number of homeless people is up from a few years ago, he said, but nobody can pinpoint an exact number of families because reporting requirements vary widely from state to state.

"Our desire would be to have many more states step up and track the data," Mangano said. "Research and data, that's what should drive the resources that we make available. Instead it's often anecdote, conjecture and hearsay that does that."

Kehoe attributes the increase in Massachusetts to a convergence of factors including low wages, high housing costs, an increase in housing foreclosures and cuts in federal and state housing assistance programs. Two years ago, lawmakers also lowered the financial eligibility requirements to qualify for homeless benefits from the poverty level to those making 130 percent of what would be considered a poverty wage, she said.

"I think what we are seeing here is a perfect storm," she said. "Until we have some investment in affordable housing, and some flexibility in using our resources, we're not going to see a leveling off of these numbers."

Rivera lost her apartment in Springfield in 2005, when a domestic abuse case involving the father of her youngest child prompted the state to remove all four youngsters from her custody, she said. Without the money she had been receiving in Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Rivera could not pay her rent.

She moved in with friends, worked at a gas station, went to school to become a medical receptionist and fought in court to get her children returned.

A judge eventually restored custody, but without a place to live, the family has moved from one shelter after another.

"It's hard to get an apartment anywhere, especially with the size of apartment I need," she said. "There's none out there, and once one comes available, there are just so many of us out here that need, it gets taken up with the snap of a finger."

The New England Farm Workers Council, a private nonprofit agency contracted by the state, is helping Rivera look for permanent housing. She has an income of just over $1,400 a month, all from either TAFDC or Social Security, for her 9-year-old who suffers from epilepsy.

The agency requires that families spend no more that 50 percent of their income in rent, a figure designed to make it more likely that families won't get behind on those payments.
But rents for a three-bedroom apartment in the greater Springfield area range from about $800 to $1,300 without utilities, said Tom Salter, the vice president of the agency's shelter and housing division.

"A minimum-wage job for 40 hours a week is just not going to pay the rent in any area," he said. "It just isn't."

There are state programs that help once a homeless family finds a new place to live, including one that gives families up to $2,000 for security deposits and first and last months' rent. Salter said a recent study of families helped by his agency over the last 12 months showed 97 percent of those that received that money were still in their homes.

Rental assistance, however, often is difficult to get. The state spends about $30 million on rental subsidies, compared with about $120 million 15 years ago, and there also have been no new incremental increases in major federal subsidies in about a decade, Kehoe said.

Kehoe and Frost said families also are being squeezed by the recent national lending crisis, as high mortgages that have forced some landlords to sell or face foreclosure.
"Although most of the homeless were not homeowners, many could have been people living in units that had been foreclosed on," Frost said.

Frost and other homeless advocates have sent a letter to Kehoe and Marilyn Chase, the assistant secretary for Children Youth and Families, asking them to put $5 million dollars in the Transitional Assistance budget as a line item for prevention programs.

Kehoe said she would like to see money for more vouchers, programs to help at risk families pay back rent or utilities and the ability to allocate current funds where they will do the most good - such as programs for daycare, job training and public transportation.

"What we want to do is focus on how to target vouchers to quickly move people out of shelters," Kehoe said. "We are looking at a model that would include job support, that would include an escrow account, so that people are encouraged to do everything they can to increase their income."

Rivera said once she is able to find an apartment, she plans to enroll in another job training program, with the goal of becoming self-sufficient.

"I want to try and live happily ever after if I can," she said. "I try my best to hang in there and do what I got to do. I never want to try and let them be able to take my kids away from me again."

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