by Jim Wehner
Our task was to strip donated bikes for usable and resellable parts for FCS’ bike shop. So Diamond and I began to assess the rusty and stubborn bolts and screws. I enjoy volunteering at the bike shop, and program staff are flexible with my volunteer hours as I am often traveling.
Diamond is a sporadic attendee at the bike shop, too, but for very different reasons. Her ability to show up is often based on where she is staying at the moment. Sometimes she lives with her grandmother, but other times, she stays with her father or an uncle. When she is in the neighborhood, she can walk to the bike shop. But when she’s not, she has no transportation to get there.
Diamond is not alone. This type of nomadic, or transient, lifestyle is the norm for many families in our majority rental neighborhood. I spoke recently with a good friend and community leader about a young student facing suspension from school. Her record of offenses supported the school’s position: Her in-class performance is poor. Homework is missing or incomplete. And she is often tardy to class or absent from school altogether.
School officials have tried every discipline strategy available to reach this student, to encourage her to align her behaviors for success. Then my friend explained that this young lady lives in a weekly stay hotel (hotels which charge by the week, rather than by night). She stays in one room with seven other individuals. Late nights with the television on are her norm. And she has to rise at 5:30 am to catch the public transit bus to school.
This is not a discipline issue. It is a housing, parenting, job, and poverty issue combined. This is why at FCS we say we believe material poverty can only be solved when we address systems and structures. In the cases of this student and my friend Diamond, housing and education are irrevocably intertwined.
These issues are certainly structural ones that we have to solve. There is simply no reason in a developed country like the U.S. that we cannot make reasonable housing available for everyone. I am not talking about free rent, but about stable and affordable housing that provides families with a sense of place and permanence.
Matthew Desmond writes, “For decades, we’ve focused mainly on jobs, public assistance, parenting, and mass incarceration. No one can deny the importance of these issues, but something fundamental is missing. We have failed to fully appreciate how deeply housing is implicated in the creation of poverty. Not everyone living in a distressed neighborhood is associated with gang members, parole officers, employers, social workers, or pastors. But nearly all of them have a landlord.”
At FCS, we recognize one of the best things that can happen to a family is to find a home where they can build stability. Once families experience the peace that comes with knowing you have a place to go to sleep each night, they are able to more deeply invest in their family and social relationships. It also prevents disruptions in education, “which increases the chances that children will excel and graduate. And it begets community stability, which encourages neighbors to form strong bonds and take care of their block.”
As Diamond and I surveyed the task in front of us, I noticed she was unsure how to loosen one of the bolts. I accessed my reservoir of handyman wisdom and told her, “Righty-tighty, lefty loosey!” I received a blank stare in return. “What?” she responded. Then, I showed her the majority of fasteners on the bike tighten by turning them to the right and loosen by turning to the left.
This was a small, on-the-spot educational moment for Diamond, and I hope it serves her in the future. But I cannot help but wonder how much more she can thrive if stable housing were available and accessible to her family. It inspires me to continue our housing work and pursuing partnerships with educational experts so we can work together for our neighborhood to thrive.
Quotes taken from Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond (2016-03-01). Crown/Archetype. Kindle Edition.