Home Social Justice High poverty levels in Athens affects residents and economy

High poverty levels in Athens affects residents and economy

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A pot of boiling water gurgles over a stove and a pan of olive oil, rosemary, and black pepper simmers beside it. In the kitchen, volunteers chatter over what the night has in store when the door opens and the moms, dads, brothers and sisters without homes of their own trickle in. The volunteers are preparing the Wednesday meal at the Timothy House, and all are welcome.

Athens County has one of the highest poverty rates in the area at more than twice the state average of 14.2 percent. Additionally, almost 18 percent of all Athens County residents live at or below 50 percent of the poverty level, according to the Athens County Job and Family Services Annual Report for 2011-2012.

The annual income for residents living within this 18 percent is $11,525 for a family of four and $5,535 for an individual.

“Some factories and different jobs closed down when the economy got worse, and the economy was already struggling in [southeastern] Ohio and Appalachia before that,” said Nick Claussen, Athens Job and Family Services community relations coordinator. ”A lot of the jobs that have come back are lower paying jobs, service industry jobs. And we are thankful to have those jobs, but it would be good if more higher paying jobs would come back too.

According to Claussen, in August of 2013, the unemployment rate for Athens was measured at 8.2 percent, while the state rate was 6.9 percent.

Including cash and food assistance, Athens Jobs and Family Services spent almost $22 million on programs to help the impoverished in Athens County.

“It would be good if we had more funding for our programs,” Claussen said. “For every dollar that you increase in food stamp funding, you get almost $2 in return, because when people get food stamps money they aren’t saving it. They are just going out and spending it on businesses. So it helps those businesses grow and helps them pay their employees.”

Keith Wasserman, founder and director of Good Works, an organization that works to help people struggling with poverty, has been in Athens for 38 years.

Wasserman cites the change in the steel, agriculture, coal and auto industry as being a major reason for unemployment today as opposed to 40 years ago when these industries held jobs that could easily support families.

“[Technology] has clearly removed thousands upon thousands of entry level, well paying, decent jobs from the market. So where have those people gone?” Wasserman said.

Wasserman has opened his doors to “people without homes” and people struggling with poverty for 33 years. What started as a place to stay in his basement turned into a program spread over five different locations within the area, with 20 different initiatives.

One of these locations is the Timothy House, a shelter that opens at 5:15 p.m. and offers dinner, workshops such as the “Training for Life” computer class, and card games.

If a resident does not have children with them, they are asked to leave between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m.

All persons staying in the house must not loiter within the neighborhood during the hours they are to leave the house. In order to stay in the house, applicants must go through a phone interview as well as a face-to-face interview.

According to the Good Works website, in 2012 The Timothy House provided shelter to 206 men, women and children and were forced to turn down shelter for 248 people.

Good Works tried to expand The Timothy House in 2007 by asking the county to buy the house next door. They were denied due to city code.

“Now I look at people that are homeless totally different than I ever have in my whole life. Now I know how it is, you know? That’s the only shelter in this whole Southeast,” said Mark Moore, a member of Good Works who became homeless when he was 46 and is now self-sustaining at 48 and attending Ohio University

From 2009-2011, 65 percent of the people Good Works served were from Athens County and 25 percent were from other southeastern counties.

Moore describes his experience as frustrating. “I guess that’s why I worked so hard to get out of there, because I shouldn’t have been there.”

With The Timothy House being one of the only shelters in the area, the space can get really crowded.

“You are going to have an attitude the first few days, and it’s understandable. I don’t think anybody wants to be there. I sure didn’t want to be there, you know? It was just difficult with the different things people did,” Moore said.

The average number of food assistance recipients per month grew by 3,951 over the last 5 years.

“As far as me getting help, there is nothing. I did everything on my own to get to where I’m at today, with help with them.” Moore said.

Another member of the Good Works program who wishes to remain anonymous stayed at The Timothy House for three months.

“There are people who have nothing, zero income, and that was there option, was to stay there, and it just kind of really opened my eyes to a lot,” she said.

This member of Good Works is still very involved with Good Works and keeps in touch with many of the people she met there.

“Homeless people are stereotyped as being criminals and/or drug addicts, and there is that element. But for the most part they are just people down on their luck, and they need more compassion than they get.”

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