‘Life on the Edge 2’ Generates a Wealth of Ideas for the Fight Against Poverty

Editor’s Note: Community leaders gathered in Bremerton earlier this month for the second installment of a program that has become a rallying point in Washington’s Kitsap County for the fight against poverty. “Life on the Edge,” which began in 2012 as Cathy Brorson’s Development Educator project, looked first at inspiring personal change. With “Life on the Edge 2,” the focus switched to engaging the entire community in identifying priorities and creating the kinds of programs that can sustain change.

The response was phenomenal, both locally and across the country.

Information gathered from “Life on the Edge 2” will be used to help the Kitsap Community Foundation, United Way and the Suquamish Tribe decide how to allocate $1 million to a Poverty Alleviation Project. And the National Credit Union Foundation has invited Brorson, the outreach coordinator for Kitsap Credit Union, to share her project as a mentor at the spring Development Educator training session in Wisconsin and on a DE Rock Star panel this summer in Texas.

We asked Brorson to share her impressions of the day with Anthem readers first, though. Here’s her report:

By Cathy Brorson, Outreach Coordinator
Kitsap Credit Union

The Ambulance Down In The Valley
by Joseph Malins, 1895

‘Twas a dangerous cliff, as they freely confessed,
though to walk near its crest was so pleasant;
but over its terrible edge there had slipped
a duke and full many a peasant.

So the people said something would have to be done,
but their projects did not at all tally;
some said, ‘Put a fence ’round the edge of the cliff,’
some, ‘An ambulance down in the valley.’

But the cry for the ambulance carried the day,
for it spread through the neighboring city;
a fence may be useful or not, it is true,
but each heart became full of pity
for those who slipped over the dangerous cliff;
And the dwellers in highway and alley
gave pounds and gave pence, not to put up a fence,
but an ambulance down in the valley.

‘For the cliff is all right, if your careful, ‘ they said,
‘and if folks even slip and are dropping,
it isn’t the slipping that hurts them so much
as the shock down below when they’re stopping.’
So day after day, as these mishaps occurred,
quick forth would those rescuers sally
to pick up the victims who fell off the cliff,
with their ambulance down in the valley.

Then an old sage remarked: ‘It’s a marvel to me
that people give far more attention
to repairing results than to stopping the cause,
when they’d much better aim at prevention.

Let us stop at its source all this mischief, ‘ cried he,
‘come, neighbors and friends, let us rally;
if the cliff we will fence, we might almost dispense
with the ambulance down in the valley.’

In 1895, Joseph Malins wrote a poem called, “The Ambulance Down in the Valley.”  In it, he writes that people can either work together now to keep their neighbors from falling over the edge of a cliff, or they can place an ambulance down in the valley and wait until those neighbors hit bottom.

With “Life on the Edge 2,” my goal was to gather community leaders together and address the issue of poverty head on – to help find a way to build a fence around that cliff.

The need is staggering.  On any given day in Kitsap County, there are an estimated 500 people living on the streets, in vehicles and in the woods.  Housing Solutions Center of Kitsap County served 2,819 households in 2013; for those families, the average annual income was $8,400. Think about that for a minute. Equate it to your last car purchase, your last family vacation, your warm home, or your annual entertainment budget.   Painful, isn’t it?

Most of us really have no idea what it is to want, or to be without. But the effects of homelessness and poverty affect everyone, regardless of status – a fact that was confirmed time and time again by the people who attended “Life on the Edge 2.”

Attendees came from Kitsap, King, Pierce, Thurston and Mason counties.  They represented every possible sector of the community, from law enforcement, health care and social service agencies to business and religious leaders, educators, credit union representatives and government officials. About half of the participants had attended the first “Life on the Edge” in 2012.

We began by looking at the connection between having a stable home and staying far from “the edge” – the metaphorical precipice that, once crossed, often results in hardships that can lead to a downward spiral into emotional, physical and mental crisis. 

Consider: The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) says that “affordable housing” shouldn’t cost more than 30 percent of a household’s gross income. For a person working 40 hours a week for minimum wage in Kitsap County (currently $9.32/hour), that means “affordable housing” equates to $485 a month.  But the average apartment rental in the area is $806 a month. 

To make matters worse, there are only about 29 “affordable” rental units in Kitsap County for every 100 extremely-low-income households (those defined as incomes below 30% of the area median). And that leaves few options for those involved in the fierce competition for the limited local, state and federal assistance.

To put a face on these statistics, I added a “glimpse of real life” by asking participants to consider three case studies. One involved Kristafer, a single father with custody of his 4-year old daughter, who:

  • Has had frequent run-ins with law enforcement;
  • Is a regular abuser of narcotic drugs, including meth;
  • Has a GED, but is unemployed and has very limited skills; and
  • Is a couch surfer, with no stable housing.

“Most of us really have no idea what it is to want, or to be without. But the effects of homelessness and poverty affect everyone, regardless of status.”

– Cathy Brorson, outreach coordinator for Kitsap Credit Union and creator of “Life on the Edge 2”

What can or should be done to help this man? Should he be forced to give up custody of his young daughter? These are the kinds of tough questions faced every day in the field, and so I asked a panel of community leaders to address the issues of poverty and homelessness from their unique perspectives.

The panel included Julie Graves, resident services coordinator for Housing Kitsap; Monica Bernhard, manager of the Housing Solutions Center; Steve Strachan, Bremerton’s police chief;  Dr. Scott Lindquist, director of health for the Kitsap Public Health District; Kirsten Jewell, housing grant program manager for the Kitsap Regional Coordinating Council; Dr. Michelle Reid, superintendent of the South Kitsap School District; and Larry Eyer, executive director of Kitsap Community Resources.  Kol Medina, the executive director of the Kitsap Community Foundation, served as moderator.

One speaker noted that the difference between being poor and being in crisis is that people in crisis don’t have a personal safety net of friends and family to assist them.   Providing mentoring or coaching services could fill that gap, panelists said.

Other suggestions for keeping people “off the ledge” included foreclosure prevention, better coordination of services and more education – particularly for women and mothers.

Participants then broke into smaller groups to discuss dental care, the aging population, substance abuse, education, the economy and employment, transportation, housing, medical care and mental health issues. Armed with information gleaned from the panel and their own discussions, they then reported back with an inventory of programs and services currently being offered, as well as a wealth of new ideas, activities and programs they’d like to see implemented.

Among their ideas: a health alliance that would coordinate mental health, medical, dental and social service; a “redemption” program to improve the employment prospects for criminals attempting to re-enter society as productive members; and a homeless-to-homeowner program that could transition people out of subsidies and into self-sufficiency.

Each group also answered a very important question: If you had $1 million to spend in the fight against poverty, what would your top three priorities be, and how would you distribute the money in the community?

That’s not a hypothetical question, of course. Through a partnership I’ve forged with the Kitsap Community Foundation, United Way and the Suquamish Tribe, information gathered at “Life on the Edge 2” will be used to help decide how best to distribute a $1 million Poverty Alleviation Project grant.  The collaboration will continue over four years, with the first $250,000 expected to be disbursed this fall.

Will the money help? Can the community really have an impact on the lives of neighbors in need? Consider the case study of Kristafer, the single dad whose story helped launch our day of discussions. At the end of the day, I asked his case worker to share Kristafer’s story, and she sobbed softly as she talked about the outcome of a life that had gone over the edge.

Attendees heard from a variety of community leaders and got a “glimpse of real life” from three case studies.

Kristafer now works for the Bremerton Housing Authority, where he helps others in need. On the day of “Life on the Edge 2,” he was celebrating his 11th anniversary of remaining clean, sober and drug free, and his daughter is a thriving, straight-A student – a fact he shared with the audience when he walked from the back of the room to applause and a standing ovation.

At the podium, Kristafer thanked the community agencies that picked him up when he hit bottom, and he thanked his credit union for being part of his journey to recovery. At a critical time in his life, he was given a share-secured credit card and coaching to help him rebuild his credit and pay off his debt, he said. Though he still struggles a bit, he’s financially back on track — and has just purchased a home! Needless to say, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.

It was a fitting way to end “Life on the Edge 2,” and a great example of the power we all have to be catalysts for change. It was also a powerful reminder to me of the impact credit unions have on the communities they serve. Whether it’s in touching one life or in changing an entire community, the credit union principles of ongoing education, social responsibility and cooperation among cooperatives can yield astounding results.

“Life on the Edge 2” showed that by taking action, the cooperation and mutual self-help that credit unions are built upon can rally and motivate others to take action, too. And when that happens, the ripple effect is unending. 

Questions about this story? Contact Gary M. Stein: 503.350.2216, gstein@nwcua.org.

Posted in Article Post.