Morgan County’s approach to its poverty problem started with a meeting of more than 125 people.
They came from social service agencies, businesses, churches, schools and government offices. Morgan County law enforcement officers, firefighters and health care providers all sat together.
The discussion wasn’t on how to get the poor more food or how to shelter them for a week. They had to find out how to break the cycle of poverty.
That night in 2012 was the start of Morgan County’s experiment with the Bridges Out of Poverty initiative. As Johnson County prepares to start its own Bridges Out of Poverty effort, its leaders have looked to Morgan and other counties for evidence that it can make an impact.
Getting results might not come easily. But to tackle a problem as massive as poverty, every step forward is progress.
“When we help someone in poverty, we’re making the community better. And we understand someone in poverty, and have compassion, the community is better,” said Lori Miller, part of Putnam County’s Bridges Out of Poverty effort. “The idea is we should all sit down together and solve these problems.”
Bridges Out of Poverty is a workshop digging into the sources and impact of poverty, including the hidden rules and norms that dictate social class. The program will ideally give area leaders from all facets of the community the framework needed to start seriously addressing poverty.
Johnson County will host its first session Tuesday at Franklin Community High School.
“The principles work on educating middle class as well as those in poverty. Both sides need an education in understanding each other. That’s where we get the idea of building a bridge,” Miller said. “We’re all living in the same community together, and we affect each other.”
Putnam County conducted its first Bridges Out of Poverty seminar in 2012, and 80 people attended. One month later, a community coalition to address poverty issues formed.
The main component of the initiative has been the Getting Ahead in a Just Getting By World program, which Miller coordinates.
The class is intended to help bridge economic disparities, helping those in poverty learn how to live a more sustainable lifestyle. Training is provided to give people more information about how the economy works, and how their choices can help them escape the cycle of “just getting by.”
The goal is to change participants’ perspective, Miller said.
“It allows them to step out of the crisis of the moment in their situation, and think about what direction they’d really like their lives to go,” she said. “These are people who are always caught in the crisis of each moment, and they can never think past this current crisis.”
So far, 30 people have graduated from the Getting Ahead program, based in Greencastle. Eight of them have improved their job status after taking the class, and seven graduates are pursuing higher education.
After finishing the class, 80 percent of the participants reported that they are more stable financially.
“I wish we could say that all 30 had huge life changes. I can’t say that, but we do have stories of people whose lives have been dramatically changed, just by participating in this group,” Miller said.
The same year Putnam County started its Bridges Out of Poverty efforts, Morgan County was also struggling with how to approach the issue.
Civic, social service and educational leaders saw that their community faced significant challenges with poverty. More than 40 percent of public school students received free or reduced lunch.
Data showed that 37 percent of households receive food stamp benefits. Between 2006 and 2010, the number of people served by food banks increased to nearly 46 percent.
Morgan County had a wide net of agencies and services hoping to meet the needs of the poor. But community leaders wanted to know how to attack the root cause of poverty.
The idea to start a Bridges Out of Poverty initiative was driven by Home Bank. The company has its own program dedicating 10 percent of its net profits to agencies and programs to better the community.
Through that effort, the bank learned about Bridges Out of Poverty. Company leaders felt it was an ideal campaign to help address multiple problems afflicting Morgan County, said Lisa Arnold, vice president and chief operating officer of Home Bank in Martinsville.
“From a moral perspective, these were our neighbors. This is the community we’re a part of,” she said. “We have been very concerned about the challenges. We felt we had the ear of the community, having such a longstanding relationships here, that we could start some conversations and get people to the table.”
The initial forum, consisting of training and a facilitated discussion about poverty, brought out about 125 people. Most importantly, advocates and agencies had some momentum to begin addressing poverty in meaningful ways. Community leaders founded a Bridges Out of Poverty nonprofit organization, and from that grew a series of social programs helping the poor.
The county has conducted a Poverty Awareness Week. Leaders have organized its own Getting Ahead program, in the same vein as Putnam County.
But one of the most encouraging results has been the Stability First program, which developed as an offshoot of Bridges Out of Poverty.
Stability First was founded as a nonprofit to take care of some of the holes in the social safety net that were uncovered through Bridges Out of Poverty, said Rick Miller, pastor at Martinsville’s Eastview Christian Church and director of the agency.
“Basically, we saw where our county had these needs,” he said.
The agency is focused on three projects.
The Lynay Center is a gathering of resources to help the underprivileged, housing five agencies providing services such as assistance with utilities, food and clothing, help for people looking to get their high school equivalency and guidance navigating housing issues.
“You can come in, start with the more emergency needs that you have, then move on to education, working on the housing, and doing it all in one place,” Rick Miller said.
Magdalene House is a shelter for single women. Morgan County had no options for homeless single women; all of the existing housing programs were for families, victims of domestic violence or men, Rick Miller said.
Pike Street Bridge is housing program for men designed to help transition the homeless from an emergency shelter to more sustainable need, Rick Miller said. Financial planning, counseling and help setting up a savings account are all part of the program.
“It’s great to get these guys off the street, but there was nothing after that. How did we get guys to get out of the cycle of homelessness?” he said.
The county’s poverty efforts are still in their infancy, but already leaders are seeing encouraging signs. At the root of that has been open communication that all started with Bridges Out of Poverty, Arnold said.
“We’re still very new in this,” she said. “But what has been most important is people have been more aware of the issue and have been talking about what we can do collaboratively to at least start addressing the problems and taking care of the problems.”
Bridges Out of Poverty
When: 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Franklin Community High School, 2600 Cumberland Drive
What: A learning and planning workshop addressing sources and impact of poverty on families and communities. The event will feature Philip E. DeVol, an author and speaker specializing in poverty issues.
Cost: $25 per person, includes lunch and materials
Who: Sponsored by KIC-IT and Home Bank
Who can come: The event is open to the public, and anyone who wants to learn more about poverty in the community.
Information and registration: KIC-IT.org or call (317) 412-4973.