September 29, 2002, Sunday
The New York Times
In Trenches of a War on Unyielding Poverty
By JOHN W. FOUNTAIN (NYT) 3099 words
Late one afternoon, LeeArius Daniels, a 6-year-old boy with string-bean legs, squirmed on a dingy sofa near his front door.
''I'm hungryyyyy,'' he moaned, his eyes wet with tears.
His mother, LaCheir Daniels, who sat nearby on the stoop of their wood-frame home in Pembroke Township, Ill., plaiting her eldest daughter's hair, did not answer. Her eyes were fixed toward the ground, her lips taut and silent.
The cupboards were bare. The food stamps were exhausted, the staples from the local food pantry depleted. Ms. Daniels, a single mother of five children, was down to that time at the end of the month when the sun rises and sets on her incessant worry: What will we eat tomorrow?
The Danielses are among 32.9 million Americans -- 11.7 million of them under 18 -- who live in poverty, while untold others teeter on its edge. After the economic boom of the 1990's, the poverty rate fell slightly, even as the nation increasingly moved from welfare to work.
But now the number of Americans in poverty has risen again, for the first time in eight years, according to census figures reported last week. The gap between rich and poor is growing. The Census Bureau's report showed that the weakening economy had begun to affect large segments of the population, whatever their race, region or class.
For the largely black population of Pembroke, the report was a reflection of the problems here. Yet it was also a collection of dry numbers that do not fully convey how entrenched poverty can be in places where the escape routes to a better life are blocked -- by the lack of transportation, jobs and child care, by geographic isolation, by hopelessness.
Such is life in Pembroke, a hamlet an hour's drive south of Chicago where some still live in crumbling shacks with caked-dirt floors and no running water.
There are half a dozen liquor stores and scores of churches. But there is no bank. No supermarket. No police force. No barbershop. No gas station. No pharmacy.
For decades, people have searched for a prescription for poverty in Pembroke. For most people here, there is only the hope for healing.
In Pembroke, healing poverty is both a natural and spiritual undertaking for Dr. Rodney Alford and the Rev. Jon Dyson. They are poverty doctors. One is in the business of healing bodies; the other, souls -- though the preacher often must also help mend houses and fill stomachs before tending to matters of the spirit.
On the front line in Pembroke, the war on poverty is less about government intervention than it is a call for commitment, community and compassion.
Dr. Alford, a tall man with a short Afro, runs the clinic on Main Street, the only one for miles around. Mr. Dyson, a stout man with a goatee and a shiny shaved head, runs the local food pantry and makes house calls.
Statistically, Pembroke is among the poorest areas in the country, once mentioned in the same breath with Tunica County, Miss., which once was considered the poorest county in the nation until it introduced casino gambling a decade ago. In 1999, more than half the families with children under 5 were below the poverty level. Last year, unemployment was more than five times the rate for the state. In the Pembroke Consolidated School District, 98 percent of students are so poor they qualify for free lunch. In 1999, average per capita income was $9,642, compared with $21,587 nationally and $23,104 statewide.
Pembroke, in Kankakee County, has suffered neglect for decades. But last week Gov. George Ryan returned to his home county, Kankakee, to break ground on a $100 million women's prison in Pembroke that will mean hundreds of construction jobs and nearly 800 prison jobs when it begins operating in three years. While many here applaud the prison coming to Pembroke, some wonder how many of the jobs will go to local residents, and say that ultimately a prison will not bring prosperity or solve their problems, which run deep.
There is no natural gas pipeline, and mostly sand and gravel roads. Many still rely on well water in Pembroke, which officially has 2,784 residents, more than 90 percent of them black.
But Dr. Alford and Mr. Dyson contend that according to their records, there are at least another 2,000 people living at the end of gravel roads or in the woods, where census takers never go.
It was Dr. Alford who allowed Mr. Dyson to convert the tiny white building behind the clinic, once a nurse's office, into a food pantry. It is but one branch of the preacher's ministry. Mr. Dyson, 53, also works with a group of Christian volunteers who in the summer help fortify the aged wood-frame homes and flimsy trailers against the brutal wind and cold that whips across Illinois in winter. Though the sun was shining as Mr. Dyson made his house calls, there was a sense of urgency -- the sense that winter would soon be calling again.
'You Can't Be Weak'
The car wheels rolled over sandy washboard-ridged roads on a muggy afternoon. The sun was depressingly hot. As Mr. Dyson rumbled along, he could see crippled abandoned cars, tires atop houses. The tires keep roofs from sailing away in the wind. In the dead of winter, when the wood has run out, some around here are known to burn tires to keep warm.
''Hello, anybody home?'' Mr. Dyson asked, standing at the door of the narrow beige and brown frame house.
Finally, a man with beads of sweat on his forehead answered. Calvin Murrell is his name. A Vietnam veteran, Mr. Murrell, 54, had weeks earlier lost his job as a truck driver after 10 years. He had no money to fix his crumbling ceiling, which he temporarily bandaged with tape and clear plastic. A member of another church in Pembroke, Mr. Murrell sent word to Mr. Dyson that he needed help.
Mildewed and moist, the ceiling sagged. The air was hot and dry. The windows were sealed with tape and plastic. Not wanting the inconvenience and expense of removing his winter covering for a few months, Mr. Murrell was content to sweat it out.
''Have you had any problems with vermin getting in?'' Mr. Dyson asked.
''Oh, mice?'' replied Mr. Murrell.
''Mice or ----''
''Oh yeah, they come in. It's hard to keep them jokers out.''
''What about your electricity and your plumbing?''
''O.K., my plumbing is bad,'' Mr. Murrell answered. But that he can live with.
''The main thing I want is that roof. The floor is awful. The floor is just . . .'' He paused. ''I need another floor.''
Mr. Dyson promised to return with an engineer in a few days. The grateful man mustered half a smile and many thanks. The preacher pressed on.
''You can't be weak and live out here,'' Mr. Dyson said, once again on the move. ''We spend a lot of time building people up, people who have been kicked down and who have been beat down and oppressed by the lack of government services or supportive services to meet their needs here. But they've also been oppressed by their own minds and their own attitudes.''
When a Chicago philanthropist built six houses for the poor in Pembroke about three years ago, Mr. Dyson pleaded with him, futilely, to make the residents undergo counseling before allowing them to move in.
So Mr. Dyson was not surprised when about a year after an elderly woman had moved into one of the new modular homes, she trudged back to her old place to be with her husband, who had flat-out refused to leave their crumbling house. Nor was Mr. Dyson surprised to find the old man already stacking wood for winter.
But Mr. Dyson is not without his own critics, who contend that his handouts only enable the poor and foster a spirit of complacency, if not poverty.
Mr. Dyson said that was not the case -- that he was offering a hand up, not a handout.
The preacher and his wife, Lisa, 42, have been pastors of the Church of the Cross since 1992. They moved with their three children to Pembroke from Kankakee in 1999. The church at the mouth of town, with its towering, lighted white cross, was built more than 10 years ago by a local elderly couple who believed that hope was the cure for Pembroke.
Now, three years later, in a struggling church with only a modest membership, Mr. Dyson confesses that he is not sure how much impact he can have, or how much longer he can last.
''If the good Lord blesses, I'm going to be here,'' he said.
'I Had Kind of a Calling'
Dr. Alford's van rolls into town twice a week: Tuesdays by 2 p.m., Thursdays by 9 a.m. The 44-year-old doctor lives squarely between Kankakee and Pembroke. He came here in 1986, aiming to help heal the land, knowing that doctors can be a line of defense against abuse, detect malnutrition, give prescriptions and at least help diminish the effects of poverty.
A graduate of Loyola University Medical School, he had just completed his residency at Cook County Hospital in Chicago. In exchange for a scholarship from the National Health Service Corps, he had agreed to work two years in one of the agency's designated underserved communities. The choice came down to Tunica County or Pembroke. Back then, Pembroke had no full-time physician. Dr. Alford wanted to stay close to his Chicago roots.
What began as a two-year commitment turned into 16 years.
''Pembroke kind of grew on me, and I realized I had kind of a calling to be there,'' Dr. Alford said.
On a sunny Tuesday, the doctor's brown hands gently helped an elderly woman with salt-and-pepper hair onto his examination table.
''No ankle swelling or anything like that?'' asked Dr. Alford, in an ivory lab coat and stethoscope.
''No,'' said Henrietta Thigpen, 76.
''Well,'' she said on second thought. ''I went away on a trip and it swole.''
''It's not real bad,'' Dr. Alford said. ''But it's definitely some swelling here.''
A little swelling, a bad back, scrapes, scratches, blood pressure monitoring and routine checkups -- this is Dr. Alford's business now. As the new doctor in town in 1986, he says, he inherited ''a horrible infant mortality rate,'' patients suffering ailments common to poor blacks -- diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and ''a lot of end-stage diseases.''
''A lot of this was just because there had not been a stable presence in the area for any time and the transportation issue has always plagued the area,'' he explained.
Despite his success in improving the quality of health care here, Dr. Alford has come to understand that he cannot save everyone. For myriad reasons, people like the Danielses never make it to the clinic.
A few years ago, Dr. Alford was set to take an offer in California to head a large practice. But people in Pembroke and Kankakee, where he also practices, got together and prayed and pleaded with him to reconsider. The doctor was so moved that he decided to stay.
''This is my ministry,'' said Dr. Alford, who is married and has four children. ''This is where I was supposed to do what God sent me here to do.''
'Better Than This'
Toward the end of his rounds, Mr. Dyson knocked on LaCheir Daniels's door. There was little more than dust on her kitchen shelves. The pantry run by Mr. Dyson's church, which distributes more than 9,000 pounds of food a month, had already exhausted its supply. The minister was down to bare bones, to a few snacks and promises.
Ms. Daniels was down to bare bones, too. But she has her pride. So she insisted everything was fine, except for maybe the kitchen floor that seemed ready to cave in. Mr. Dyson took note that the water heater was not working, that the plywood covering a kitchen window was leaking daylight, and that plastic, not glass, still covered the other windows with another winter just months away. He promised to return.
The preacher drove away, disturbed, but remarking that Ms. Daniels appeared to be doing better. Last year, she had no water.
A high school dropout, Ms. Daniels, who grew up in Pembroke, has worked sparingly in her 29 years, mostly at temporary factory jobs. Her monthly allotment of food stamps is $450. She receives no cash grant. Under the 1996 welfare overhaul, able-bodied adults must seek employment. She is able-bodied and willing to work, she says. But she has no transportation. No buses or trains run through Pembroke.
She is a round woman with plump cheeks; her voice is heavy, her smile strained. Sometimes when the children lie fast asleep at night, Ms. Daniels lights scented candles, devours another romance novel. She rarely drinks, she says, except for an occasional icy can of Miller Genuine Draft, though she collects old bottles -- whiskey and wine bottles, ornate and simple, bottles of all kinds, which line her dresser top.
Ms. Daniels's mother, a sister and a brother, who live in Pembroke, help pay her $125-a-month rent. But in the middle of winter, when the propane is dwindling and half the house has been sealed off to conserve heat, she and her children go it alone.
There is LeeArius, a soft-spoken boy. He likes teasing his sisters, exploring the ditch just beyond their stoop with sticks. Fuschia, 8, is outspoken, coffee-brown with black braids sprouting from her head. LaCheir, 4, seems old for her age. She is bossy, a rambunctious girl nicknamed Mama. Thomas, the baby, is 2, quiet, with chubby cheeks. Kealicia, 11, is a slender girl, a Li'l Bow Wow fan. She is bashful, with a sheepish smile.
Fuschia dreams of becoming a doctor. So do her sisters and LeeArius. They want to ''help people'' and someday buy a big house, fill their cupboards with cookies and raisins and the refrigerator with chocolate milk.
''I can't wait till I get out of high school so I can get me a job,'' Fuschia said one afternoon. ''And when I get a job, it's going to be a good one, one I can keep.''
Ms. Daniels said she wanted ''better than this'' for her children, though she was not sure what. She has no answers to the obvious questions about what she could have done to avoid her fate. Why she has five children by four men, for instance, or why these men became ghosts when it came time to buy diapers and milk. Why they have not lived up to their responsibilities, or why, Ms. Daniels said, they quit their jobs whenever the child support people catch up to them.
Her two youngest children have the same father, a man who lives in Pembroke, but Ms. Daniels said he does not visit the children, even when he calls on friends at the house next door. She said she telephoned him once because Thomas had run out of diapers. Moments after she hung up, the telephone rang. It was the man's current girlfriend. She told Ms. Daniels she had some nerve asking for Pampers and cursed her out.
A few years ago, Ms. Daniels went back to school to get her G.E.D., believing it would give her a better chance and set an example for the children. She said that lately she had been thinking that she needed to go back to church, maybe go to school and maybe even get a degree in child care.
She wants to do something, she said -- if not for herself, then at least for the children.
''I just look at them and say, 'I got to make it for them,' '' Ms. Daniels said. ''I just really take it all one day at a time, just to see what the next day going to bring.''
LeeArius moaned, but supper was almost ready. The neck bones had browned. Ms. Daniels stood above the stove, pouring the last box of spaghetti into the kettle. Ja Rule and Mary J. Blige blared over the radio.
Finally, the only meal of the day was ready to be served.
''That look good,'' Fuschia said, staring at a steamy plate. ''Oh, I want me some.''
Ms. Daniels piled the food on the plates, as the children stood frozen in anticipation. She handed them their supper one by one -- a heap of pasta and a meaty bone.
LeeArius sat down on his bed, relishing his meal. Thomas sat on the floor eating; Kealicia on the sofa, where she and Thomas sleep; LaCheir and Fuschia on the bare musty mattresses, where they sleep.
Fuschia kicked off her right shoe and lay across the bed, in heaven with her tasty neck bones and sauceless spaghetti. There was no juice, no milk, no bread, no fruits or vegetables, no dessert. No seconds. And by the time the children had all carried away their plates, no food was left in the pot for their mother.
While the children ate, Ms. Daniels sauntered outside and snagged the clothes from the line strung between two trees.
After supper, the Daniels children smiled and played in the light and shadows of the wooded lot. LeeArius sat on a hobbled Big Wheel, lost in thought. His mother sat on the stoop in the cool of a summer's eve.
''Ma,'' LeeArius piped up. ''Why you don't never cook no ravioli?''
''We don't have any more ravioli,'' Ms. Daniels explained.
''Ma,'' LeeArius called again. ''Is there any more food in the cabinet?''
There was no answer.