What does poverty in Indianapolis look like?
The number of people in Marion County living in poverty is a giant, indigestible number: about 194,000 people.
That’s the population of Evansville and Fishers combined.
That’s enough people to sell out Lucas Oil Stadium three times over.
That’s, simply, one out of every five county residents.
Any way you put it, one thing rings true: Indianapolis is one of the 11 poorest cities in America.
For years, officials have poured money into developing chunks of the city, but on a larger scale, Indianapolis has struggled to get low-income individuals back on their feet — so much so, the number of residents in poverty has increased by nearly 90 percent in the past decade.
The number of individuals holding bachelor’s degrees in Indianapolis is stagnant. About 30 percent of people aren’t making more than $25,000 a year. Indy’s poor youth and Hispanic populations continue to grow at a disproportionally fast rate compared to the rest of the country.
As part of a national public media initiative called Chasing the Dream, WFYI Public Media explores these factors, and others, that drive poverty—including health crisis, lack of education, housing instability, job insecurity and hunger—and also examines what’s really working to lift up poor households in Indianapolis.
Use the arrows below or the navigation menu to browse the stories.
How one violence reduction program is working to improve the lives of violent crime victims
Keith Smitherman makes a stop at an apartment complex in one of Indianapolis’s most violent neighborhoods, near 38th and Sherman. He’s delivering food vouchers to a young, pregnant mom, and she invites him to the baby shower.
“I ain’t coming to no baby shower,” Smitherman said with a smile, before getting back into the car.
It’s a hot day — I’m sweating into the seats of his car — and in his work, temperature matters.
“People start getting shot more as it starts getting warmer,” he said.
Violence in Indianapolis is on the rise. With 242 non-fatal shootings and 58 homicides as of June 26, this year is trending toward being one of the worst on record. While city leaders lament the problem, violence seems to be getting worse, not better.
A lot of victims of violent crime end up at Eskenazi Hospital, where Smitherman (pictured above) works as a violence intervention specialist for a program called Prescription for Hope. When someone lands in the ER for a violent injury, like a gunshot or a stabbing, Smitherman appears in their room to talk to them.
It’s easier when someone has been that close to death.
“It’s the teachable moment,” he said. “This is the time when they’re real tender and ready for some kind of intervention.”
Getting At the Root
Teenage impulsiveness is often blamed for violence, but according to recent research from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, poverty is a root cause of violence. Poor neighborhoods tend to have worse schools, lower graduation rates. And, if you’re black, multiple studies have shown it’s harder to get a job. So the money that can come with crime starts to look pretty attractive when you grow up in these communities. Getting people jobs, education and insurance can help lift people out of poverty, and tackling poverty may be one way to tackle violence.
Smitherman works with young people between 14 and 30. Most are black males, and they’ve grown up poor. Smitherman helps them with signing up for insurance, finding a job and finishing their education.
“It’s important to us that they go get their GED,” he said. “The only way to get a good job that you’ll keep is to get some education.”
One of the program’s participants is Tyler Wilson, a 23-year old who used to sell drugs. He lives in an apartment with his sister on the east side of Indianapolis. Last year, he was at a friend’s house when someone pointed a gun to his head, demanding money. Wilson fought back.
“The bullet’s actually still in my leg right here,” he said. “I can feel it with my fingers.”
Before the incident, Wilson had been arrested for possession, which made him want to change his life. He was shot shortly after bonding out of jail, which put him in the hospital for almost a month.
That’s when Smitherman showed up and told him about Prescription for Hope. Wilson was hesitant at first but eventually agreed to join.
“It just seemed like it could bring change,” he said.
Wilson needed help getting a job, so he could pay his bills without resorting to selling drugs. He says Smitherman pushed him every step of the way, and he’s now in the process of getting his commercial driver’s license, so he can drive semis.
“I always wanted a CDL,” he said. “But I probably wouldn’t be getting it so soon.”
Prescription for Hope paid for his training.
Fewer Repeat Customers
Prescription for Hope got started in 2009, when doctors at Eskenazi noticed a problem: The emergency department had a lot of repeat customers.
Clark Simons is a trauma surgeon at Eskenazi who helped start Prescription for Hope.
“It was not uncommon that we’d have a person who might be a person of violent trauma, and within a three-to-five year time period, there was a 30 percent chance or higher of them coming back,” Simons said.
He said they realized the young people coming in with gunshot wounds were nearly always involved in crime because they had few other choices.
“For some, that’s the only option they have to provide for their family,” he said. “So poverty itself is a public health issue.”
Simons and his colleagues modeled Prescription for Hope after other successful violence intervention programs around the country.
“Most of these individuals ... they’re asking for help,” he said. “As a healthcare professional, I think it is our obligation to help our patients.”
And Eskenazi says the program’s working, and that just 4.6 percent of program participants end up back in the ER.
But it’s not zero, a fact that eats at Smitherman.
“We’ve had one guy killed after he joined the program,” he said. “That’s about as big a failure as you can have, so that one really bothers me.”
Ultimately, though, there are thousands of violent crimes each year in Indianapolis. The program can’t reach everyone.
Smitherman and the other social workers can only work with people who come into the hospital, or sometimes their family members. They can’t help the people who call their office, asking to enroll. They can’t help others who might need need help getting a job or signing up for insurance or paying for groceries.
So Smitherman celebrates the small victories for the people he is able to help.
“For some people, not coming back to the hospital, not getting injured again is a huge success,” he said. “For some people, just getting a job is a huge success. For some people, just getting insurance is a huge success. The success is relative.”
“To have so few come back with a violent injury,” he said, “shows the program is highly successful.”
Investing For The Long Haul On The Far Eastside
Can a decades-long investment by the Glick Family stabilize one of the city's toughest neighborhoods?
When Lamya Hale started at School 103 last August as a fifth grader, the experience began like others she had dealt with at city schools.
Hale was bullied by other students. At 103, she says, it caused her to break down crying a few times a week during class. But then something different happened when a teacher stepped in.
“She taught me to just stay strong and not worry about anything else,” the 11-year old said recently. “That is what I like about that school. The teachers are close to you, and they love you.”
That interaction made Lamya’s mom, LaToya Tahirou, very happy. Even though School 103 was just a few blocks from their Carriage House East apartment on the Far Eastside, Tahirou hadn’t considered it until last year.
Unaware of the school’s past history, Tahirou was surprised by its strong pull to engage parents — not just get them in the door but make them feel like they had something at stake in the school’s success.
Tahirou says a high quality school is a vital piece to changing her neighborhood — one of the city’s most dangerous.
Right now, she says, people feel like they have one option to improve their lives — moving to a township or northward to the suburbs.
But she doesn’t accept those options.
“We should be working on bettering our own neighborhood where we are from. And if you chose to move or relocate, that is fine, but you shouldn’t be moving from here to better yourself,” Tahirou said. “We should have quality right here — housing and schools and everything else.”
A Simple Formula
For years, the neighborhood elementary school, K-6 Francis Scott Key School 103, desperately struggled.
Up until last year, School 103 was the worst performing school in the Indianapolis Public Schools district. In 2013-14, 85 percent of the students did not pass both the English and math portions of the ISTEP. The next year, 90 percent of students failed both.
The school has been rated a “F” by the state for five consecutive years.
It was also one of the most violent public schools in the city with 119 fights reported during 2014-15. That pushed the elementary into the ranks of the city’s high schools for most physical altercations.
And that’s all part of why IPS decided to restart School 103 and let Phalen Leadership Academy president Earl Phalen remake the school as PLA @ 103 — a pre-K through six school.
Phalen was given autonomy to run PLA @ 103 just like the charter school he opened in 2013 on North Illinois Street.
“The work is incredibly hard, but the formula is not complex,” he said.
That formula, Phalen explained, includes leadership, partnering with parents and holding children to high expectations.
“And great teachers — you just try to clear everything out of the way for great teachers so they can focus on teaching the rigorous curriculum and program,” he said.
When the 2015-16 school year began at least 80 percent of students were a year behind in math and English, and 63 percent of students were ranked in the bottom 25 percent nationally in reading.
But academic problems aside, a major goal for the year was just getting students to be kind to each other and school staff.
“That is a constant grind to keep reminding children of how we are going to behave and how we are going to carry ourselves,” Phalen said.
And that’s because these are kids with a lot of distractions.
Students at 103 are the most transient of all city schools — meaning it’s likely that a class of kindergarten students will be completely different students by the time that cohort reaches third grade.
Unstable families, loss of jobs and all sorts of other sudden economic impacts cause students’ families to move out of the neighborhood and switch schools, Phalen said. All of that instability prevents teachers from building relationships with students or forging a school culture.
“We have kids who need a lot of extra support because they are still struggling in this environment,” Phalen said, of behavior problems that persisted months after school started.
During visits to the school the past year, students were seen engaged, following teachers with their eyes and responding with the “10 Finger Woo” shout-out to support classmates.
Phalen says those type of classrooms will eventually lead students to change their behaviors and be open to asking for help.
“If you keep that up over time, this becomes a safe place,” he said.
Agnes Aleobua is principal at the school — though Phalen is a regular presence. The first choice of principal, who was awarded a Mind Trust fellowship along with Phalen to design the school, was removed before classes began.
Two Teachers In Every Room
Restarting the school as PLA @ 103 hasn’t been cheap.
Phalen has brought in nearly $2 million dollars in federal and philanthropic aid to pay for training, staff and building upgrades, such as installing carpet in classrooms.
In addition to the state’s per pupil student tuition, IPS has provided start-up costs, including around $428,000 for “preoperational” expenses, and software licenses and hardware. IPS also pays a monthly management fee to the Phalen company. A full accounting of funds PLA @ 103 received for its first year from the district was not immediately available.
Since the school operates autonomously of IPS, and teachers are not bound by the district’s collective bargaining agreement, Phalen has a greater say-so on how funds are spent.
That’s allowed him to ensure there is two adults in every room — a licensed teacher and an aide. No other IPS school offers that outside of the district’s Montessori programs.
In the classroom, students are taught using a “blended learning” model that includes working in small groups with other students and using a personalized computer program that tracks their progress weekly.
But success is also measured in small gestures, like in teacher Ashley Floreancig’s third grade classroom when she saw students sharing an eraser during the second month of classes.
“It sounds really minor, but that can be a big deal,” Floreancig said.
Questions Of Intent
Not everyone has supported the district’s shift to work with private companies or groups — a method known as the “portfolio model” — to manage troubled IPS schools.
A partnership between IPS, education reform group The Mind Trust and the Indianapolis Mayor’s Office paved the way for the growing number of these partnerships, of which PLA @ 103 is the first.
IPS School Board member Gayle Cosby was the lone vote in 2015 against Phalen restarting School 103. One concern, she said then, was a lack of multi-year performance data at Phalen’s first school, which has yet to receive a letter grade from the state because it hasn’t been around long enough. (For the past two years, all third-grade students at the school passed the state’s reading proficiency exam.)
“I just feel like this is a gamble that we really shouldn’t take at this time,” Cosby said during the March meeting. “I can’t gamble with our kids’ education.”
Criticism didn’t stop there.
Last fall during an NAACP forum about IPS, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee faced sharp questions on the Phalen partnership.
State Rep. John Bartlett, an Indianapolis Democrat, said the 2014 law that allows IPS to work with private companies, like Phalen, is chipping away at the district.
“I didn’t agree with it then, and I don’t agree with it now,” he said about discussions he and Ferebee had in the Statehouse. “It is to dismantle the public school system, and we are using IPS for the model — in my opinion.”
During that forum, Ferebee grew impatient with the repeated demands for accountability and concerns that the portfolio model is not in the best interest of children.
“It is my responsibility, and I take wholeheartedly every day, to create those opportunities to make sure every child —regardless of their zip code, regardless of their socioeconomic status — has access to a high-quality school,” Ferebee said, as his voice began to rise. “And I don’t think anybody in this room can argue against that and don’t see the importance of ensuring students have those opportunities.”
The critiques don’t sit well with Phalen either.
“It is such bull,” he said a few months later during an interview at the school. “There was not one community group that was complaining about the quality of 103 (in 2014-15) and the lack of education that took place and the chaotic environment it was in.”
A Decades-Long Investment
There’s a lot riding on School 103. Not just as the example for IPS’s new way of improving schools but making it an integral piece for what could become Indianapolis’ most ambitious social initiative.
Marianne Glick’s family ties run deep in the Far East Side. Her father, Gene B. Glick, built homes and apartments in the area starting in the 1950s. His name is on the front of Carriage House East apartments — where 11-year-old Lamya and about 900 other people live and the Glick’s still operate.
“We have a long history with that neighborhood and don’t see a lot of others going ‘Gee, let’s run out to 42nd and Post and do work,’” the philanthropist said.
So Glick is overseeing the start of the Far Eastside Success Initiative — a literal cradle-to-career, decades-long investment that would provide everything from free preschool and college scholarships, to support for seniors and stable housing options on the Far Eastside.
Glick Philanthropies, Central Indiana Community Foundation, United Way of Central Indiana and IPS are funding and/or managing parts of the initiative.
Carriage House East is the anchor of the plan and School 103 is a major focus for support. About a quarter of the students at the school live in the apartment.
Last year, the Glick foundation gave the school nearly $500,000 to support the cost of two full-time staff members focused on connecting with parents, refurbish the school and train staff. There’s also been additional support from the foundation and United Way to launch the school’s preschool program.
The geographic area of the initiative is bound by East 42nd Street on the north and East 38th Street on the south, and Post Road on the west and just east beyond North Mitthoeffer Road.
In that area, there are around 4,500 people, including 750 children age five or under and 40 percent under age 18, according to research from the United Way.
Nearly a third of them have annual household incomes of less than $10,000.
“This is not going to turn around overnight,” Glick said. “Not until we see these children that are born today, that they have graduated college or that they ave a self-sustaining job — we will have not done our job. And hopefully they will want to go back into the neighborhood and continue the growth that has begun now.”
If this all sounds like a massive aspirational goal — that’s because it is.
And while the full extent of the program has yet to be rolled out, much is underway in addition to the support for School 103:
• The Glick Family Housing Foundation, a 501(c)3 charitable not-for-profit organization, purchased Carriage House East apartments earlier this year. That will let charitable donations help families remain in the apartment complex if they hit rough times.
• John Marshall High School graduates who live in the Far Eastside can now allow apply for scholarships from the United Negro College Fund — scholarships seeded by a $20,000 Glick Fund donation.
• A food pantry was opened Carriage House East by Community Alliance of the Far Eastside and others.
• The initiative is planning next to expand on health, workforce development, adult education and public safety programs.
The Far Eastside Success Initiative is based, in part, on a similar program in Tangelo Park near Orlando, Florida, where there’s been a reduction in crime, stabilized schools and increase in college graduates. What it took was a businessman’s $11 million philanthropic investment over the past 20 years into one neighborhood.
Glick says the family fund is prepared for a minimum of a 20-year investment on the Far Eastside.
IPS Superintendent Ferebee believes the initiative can have a similar impact as seen in Florida.
“If we truly are going to address education and crime and health in the community, what are all the supports that are needed to change outcomes?,” he said. “So we tried to build it based on what we learned from others. We also saw it as meeting the specific needs of the families in our community.”
At home in her Carriage House East apartment, LaToya Tahirou says she hasn’t heard much about the initiative, but by the little she knows — it feels like exactly what is needed.
But for now, she just wants School 103 to keep getting better for her daughter and the other children in the neighborhood.
She is happy with the improvements so far: enrollment increased by more than 20 percent from 325 students in 2014-15 to 400 students now; preliminary reading scores improved by 10 percentage points; and the number of fights were cut by 69 percent. Scores for the most recent ISTEP exam have not been released by the state.
Next year, 7th grade will also be added to School 103 to allow students, like Lamya, to remain there an additional year before choosing a middle or high school.
“It’s going to take a while. They didn’t get in that position overnight,” Tahirou says about the school. “They are not going to come out of it overnight. So as long as little steps are being made to go forward, that is all that matters.”
Getting A Fiscal Foothold
What does it take for a family to climb out of poverty?
Mike and Sylvia Lambert were high school sweethearts at Arsenal Tech. But when Sylvia got pregnant at 16, Mike dropped out to get a job.
“At that point in time, I thought that was the right thing,” he said.
That was nearly 20 years ago, and since then, Mike’s faced the same limitations that confront thousands of other Hoosiers without a diploma: His family has been perpetually cash-strapped as Mike has been forced to work a series of dead-end jobs.
“A little bit of everything,” Mike said. “Just basically laborer, minimum wage. Bare minimum stuff — warehouse work, restaurant work, done a little bit of construction in my life.”
Nearly 25 percent of adults in Marion County’s Center Township — where the Lamberts live — lack a high school diploma, and more than 40 percent of them live in poverty.
Dropping out has profound, long-term impacts on families and communities. Over their lifetimes, drop outs make an average of $400,000 less than their peers who finish high school.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, adults without a high school diploma earned an average of just less than $500 a week in 2015 — less than half the average weekly earnings of a college graduate.
The Lamberts have three sons, 17-year-old Michael, 7-year-old Robert, and 2-year-old Alexander.
“With no money in your pocket, you gotta tell your kids ‘No you can’t,’ you can’t get them this or you can’t give them money for a field trip and stuff like that. That hurts a father. You know, I might not show it but it really hurts,” Mike said.
According to the Indiana Institute for Working Families, a family of five in Marion County needs an income of about $63,000 a year in order to live without any public or private assistance. That includes the costs of housing, childcare, transportation, food, health care, taxes and a little bit of savings for emergencies.
It’s more than three times as much as the Lamberts made last year.
Even with the help of federal or state programs like SNAP, food stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit and HIP 2.0 for health care, they still fall short.
“I’ve got a couple of friends show me how to do the extreme couponing. But I’ve learned how to budget on a very small income with three kids. It’s not easy, but we’ve made it. We’ve made it this far paying what we do,” Sylvia said.
Unlike her husband, Sylvia Lambert graduated from Arsenal Tech. But she’s been stuck in low-wage jobs, too. Last year, she worked in a sports apparel factory, making $9 an hour, plus benefits, but she got laid off three times within the year.
Believing college would be their ticket out of poverty, Sylvia decided to pursue an associate’s degree in accounting and enrolled in an online program through the University of Phoenix a few years ago. That didn’t work out quite the way she planned.
“I have the computer experience. I have the software experience. I have all that experience, but I don’t have the office setting experience, so I have not been able to get a job using my degree,” she said. “I’m paying $70,000 for a degree I’m not using.”
Because of their income status, Sylvia said, she’s been able to defer her student loan payments until she goes back to work. She’d like to wait until Alexander, who’s 2, starts kindergarten.
Terri Garcia, director of Southeast Community Services and the Center for Working Families in Fountain Square, said that the economy has put people like Mike and Sylvia Lambert in a very difficult place.
“The jobs that our folks were able to get prior to the Great Recession are not available to them anymore. Other people have gotten them. Or, they were eliminated. Those employers cut out that job. Because they had a lot of other people — educated people — who were looking for work, they didn’t need to go entry level anymore,” Garcia said.
The Lamberts have lived in the Fountain Square neighborhood for decades — Mike grew up there — but until last fall, they didn’t know about the Center For Working Families at the Southeast Community Services Center. It’s one of eight such centers in Marion County, supported in part by the United Way of Central Indiana and other agencies. The centers offer employment and career help, financial literacy coaching and access to income supports.
A chance encounter last fall with education coach Christopher Nunn has completely changed the direction of the Lamberts’ lives.
“In Michael’s case, it was high school equivalency. He’s a guy I met at his child’s school on back-to-school night. And I was like, ‘You need a job?’ and he’s like, ‘Sure. I’m like, ‘wWll, we have this thing if you want to come and work on your own education.’ It turned out pretty remarkably in his case,” Nunn said.
Mike signed up for high school equivalency classes and set a goal to get his commercial driver’s license, or CDL, with help from the state’s workforce development. Certifications and apprenticeships are stepping stones out of poverty — and there are more open jobs than qualified workers.
Within a few months, Mike had finished his GED and passed the exams for his commercial driver’s license. In early May, he was hired to drive a truck for a local company making $15 an hour — more money than he’d ever made before.
Around that same time, the Lamberts learned they were being evicted because their landlord had died. They were told they would have to leave their home by June 1, leaving no time to save for a deposit on a new place. They worried they’d have to move in with friends. But their connection to the Center for Working Families came through again.
Within a couple of weeks, the Lamberts moved into a new home built by The Fuller Center of Central Indiana. The housing nonprofit has built or rebuilt a total of 22 homes in Fountain Square — half of them down the street from the Lamberts’ old house.
Provided they put in 350 hours of “sweat equity” — work on the house — they’ll be eligible to buy from Fuller after a year of living there.
Sylvia said it’s the first time they’ve ever had a home that feels like their own.
The successes the Lamberts are seeing now are a long time coming.
On June 25, Mike donned a royal blue cap and gown for a graduation ceremony of people who had earned their GEDs.
As their boys enjoyed punch and cupcakes after the ceremony, Sylvia beamed.
“I’m proud of him. I’m very proud of all the hard work he’s done.”
Mike is grateful for the coaches at the Center for Working Families. Now, he says, he’s focused on the future for 17-year old Michael.
“Try to get him to go to college. Raise the other two. Try to get them to go to college, where they don’t have to work as hard as I did. And enjoy life.”
The Near Eastside of Indianapolis is being redeveloped after decades of decline — good news for a city trying to build its tax base and attract talent.
The revitalization gained momentum in 2012, after Super Bowl projects and the private investments surrounding them pumped nearly $150 million into the area — more money than the 44-square-block neighborhood had seen in decades.
The money jumpstarted the Near Eastside’s turnaround, and today, the changes are evident everywhere along East 10th Street, with new businesses, spruced-up storefronts, and the wide new sidewalks and rain gardens that overflow with blooms on a warm summer day.
“It just allows for that safety measure, and it adds a lot more beauty,” said Tempest Brown, who runs a daycare here.
People love the new public space, but there’s worry that current low-income residents will be priced out as the neighborhood draws more private development and property values rise.
For part of its strategy, the city turned to tax increment financing, or TIF, a financial tool developed in California in the 1950s to help redevelop blighted areas. But five years ago, California Gov. Jerry Brown eliminated the redevelopment TIF. Among the criticisms: They contribute to displacement.
Advocates for low-income people want to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen here.
The Trouble With TIFs?
TIFS are complex — and often controversial — tools for development, but Indiana cities have increasingly come to rely on them, especially given the property tax cap imposed on cities by the General Assembly in 2008.
Redevelopment TIFS, like the one on Indy’s Near Eastside, often effectively develop an area’s housing and improve its economy. But in a recent study of TIFS in Indiana, Ball State University economists were critical of their overall impact, saying they don’t decrease poverty or increase employment over entire counties.
“People love TIFS, people hate TIFs, but in general I think it’s really about how they’re being applied,” said Geoff Smith, the executive director of the Institute for Housing Studies at DePaul University.
Where TIFs or other redevelopment tools are being used, Smith said, “it’s really important to maintain a certain number of units that are affordable to low-income residents. Otherwise, displacement is kind of inevitable.”
Ten years ago, Near East Area Renewal or NEAR, became the lead Community Development Corporation in the area for housing development.
Since then, they’ve restored or built 86 houses, primarily in the St. Clair Place neighborhood, and most of them for low or moderate income homeowners or renters.
Before NEAR started its work, said Executive Director John Franklin Hay, over 45 percent of the houses and lots in the neighborhood were vacant or abandoned. Residents were dealing with “very serious issues” of crime and blight.
Before they could build the houses, Hay said, they had to fix the infrastructure of the streets and sewer lines.
“You can’t get to the sexy stuff … about housing development unless you have the guts of it and the sound foundation,” he said.
To fix the streets, they needed money. So they turned to a redevelopment TIF to pay for these repairs.
Redevelopment TIFs in Indiana generally work like this: A city outlines a blighted area and takes out loans to improve the streetscape. The city pays back its loans with the resulting increase in property taxes over a 25-year period. By improving the streetscape and infrastructure, so the theory goes, property values will go up and so will property taxes.
In this particular eastside TIF, Hay said the initial investment was about $4 million.
The money was used to build the sidewalks, rain gardens and purchase a few empty lots. That debt has been paid back to the city. And now, the property taxes in the area are accruing in a bank account. Hay said the eastside redevelopment TIF generates a little over $500,000 every year.
From now until it expires in 2033, Hay expects money from the Near Eastside TIF to be used almost exclusively for infrastructure development.
The improvements to the Near Eastside are also increasingly attracting private development and investors, which could increase property taxes and drive low-income residents out.
John Tinkle used to live in one neighborhood adjacent to the TIF area: Woodruff Place.
Tinkle is in his 50s. He makes his living as a handyman, and drives his white truck between jobs. Pulling onto the street where he used to live, Tinkle nodded toward a modest single-story house.
“Not one single thing has changed since I moved out of there,” Tinkle said. “It’s the same paint. I built that fence. I did the porch lights, repaired the concrete steps. I miss that house. It’s a nice house.”
The compact neighborhood, full of big, old homes not far from downtown was among the first on the Near Eastside to turn around, and in 2006, Tinkle and his boyfriend were forced to move when their landlady decided to sell. They’d lived there 12 years and paid $500 a month in rent. As a handyman and a graphic artist, they didn’t make the kind of money that could keep them in the neighborhood. Tinkle said houses were being rehabbed a lot back then.
“At that time things were hopping, and I don’t blame her,” Tinkle said of their landlady’s decision to sell. “She made money, which is what it was for.”
They were sad to go, but they couldn’t afford to stay. So they moved farther east, to a part of the eastside that’s still struggling economically.
“I don’t really like living over here, but it’s not awful,” Tinkle said of his current neighborhood. “I don’t dislike it, but I don’t love it.”
Thinking Outside the Toolbox
Community organizer Mat Davis grew up on the eastside. He says any redevelopment tools that incentivize an increase in property values don’t protect current low-income residents.
“Even though there are some initiatives that have good intentions, what ends up happening is the market and the conventional approaches to economic development still dominate,” Davis said.
He works with the St. Dime Society, a grassroots community group on the Near Eastside. They were searching for some alternatives to conventional economic development when they discovered the community land trust movement, Davis said.
The first community land trust in the U.S. was formed nearly 50 years ago in rural Georgia, and now there are more than 240 such groups around the country.
They generally work like this: A group of community members buys land and sells the houses on the land to low-income residents. If the residents move, the houses are sold back to the land trust, which then finds other low-income residents to buy them. Keeping the land and the houses off the traditional real-estate market keeps the prices low, indefinitely.
Davis believes the model could work on the Near Eastside.
“Community land trusts help people do away with the fear of being displaced, or that constant feeling of scarcity that so many people deal with, sometimes their entire lives. [They] help provide a holistic opportunity for communities to build wealth on their own terms,” he said.
There’s no doubt the neighborhood needs investment. In a city with limited funds for improvements, community developers do what they can with the tools available to them.
But some, like Davis, say the best thing for the city’s most vulnerable is to think outside the toolbox.
Children Still Hungry For Summer Food
Why are eligible Hoosier kids missing out on free meals?
Summer food programs kicked off across the state this month.
Stout Park on the west side of Indianapolis boasts a splash pad, a playground, a picnic area and a large green space.
And earlier this month, it hosted a USDA summer food service program.
Chris Lovalvo brought her two children (pictured above).
“Being as they’re four and five, peanut butter and jelly is their most important thing,” Lovalvo said. “[The lunches are] very healthy ... sometimes things that I can’t afford at home. And it’s always nutritious, and they get a choice. That’s what I like the best.”
The federal summer food program requires distribution in areas where at least half of the children qualify for free and reduced meals.
But approximately 80 percent of Indiana’s low-income children won’t be able to connect with the federal program this summer.
The Indiana Department of Education, or DOE, heads efforts to recruit sponsors like schools, faith based organizations and parks to host feeding sites.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz says one challenge is letting people know where these distribution centers are.
“We have to make sure we get the word out to as many families as possible to be sure they continue to have that kind of food during the summer months,” Ritz said. “As I’ve said before, ‘You feed the body; you feed the mind.’”
The DOE is running more ads this year, and it has a new text message campaign. But Ritz says, even if they reach more people, they still have a another problem: transportation.
And it might be the most complicated. With commuting and other lifestyle changes, a growing number of low-income children now live outside the neighborhoods that qualify for federal assistance.
Lucy Melcher is an advocate with No Kid Hungry and says the food service program needs a makeover.
“It’s operating in the same way as it was 40 years ago, and as we know today, communities and poverty look very different than they did in 1975,” Melcher said.
On top of this, transportation can also be an issue within qualified neighborhoods.
“We need to make sure we have a summer meals program that reaches children, no matter where they live, during the summer months,” Melcher said.
Melcher wants to see Congress rework the program through the Child Nutrition Act. Her group is urging lawmakers to consider easing constraints and giving sponsors more ways to administer the program.
“The challenge is that overall this program doesn’t allow for the kind of flexibility and innovation that organizations on the ground need,” Melcher said.
Innovative ideas are happening at another site in Indianapolis’ Wayne Township.
A few years ago, Child Nutrition Director Sara Gasiorowski decided to take $30,000 from her budget and rehab a school bus to bring the summer meals to new sites. She was able to add another bus last year.
“Each bus does a couple hundred meals a day,” Gasiorowski said. “Our second bus right now has a new route, and so we’ve dropped in count. But we’re really reaching an area that needs us, so it’s just going to take time to build that up.”
Michel’le Strong enjoyed an air conditioned lunch on long benches that line the inside of the food bus parked in their west side apartment complex.
“It makes a lot of sense,” Strong said. “To be honest, some people don’t have food at home, so this is a chance for them to come down here and eat.”
Gasiorowski says she still wishes she could do more.
“It would be wonderful if the program allowed kids to sign up,” she said. “We know that they need it, and we could take it like Meals On Wheels.”
The federal government requires the reauthorization the Child Nutrition Act every five years. Both Congress and the Senate have passed versions that include the Summer Food Service Program and are working on a compromise.
Why have poverty rates in Marion County increased by nearly 90 percent in the past decade? How does that alter how poor households and the nonprofits who serve them operate?
On WFYI Public Radio’s No Limits show, host John Krull and his guests talked through these issues in special Chasing the Dream radio programs, below.
An opening discussion that frames the picture of poverty and welfare.
Guests: Katharine Byers, former co-director of The Institute for Family and Social Responsibility at Indiana University; Kelsey Clayton, manager of the Indiana Assets and Opportunity Network.
This episode addresses the place of nonprofits in filling in service gaps left by government assistance.
Guests: Ann Murtlow, President and CEO of United Way of Central Indiana; Bill Taft, Executive Director of Local Initiatives Support Corporation of Indianapolis (LISC).
A discussion on the importance of mass transit to the working poor.
Guests: Sean Northup, Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization; Shoshanna Spector, Executive Director Indy Congregation Action Network; Charlie Davis, Indianapolis resident whose employment and ability to age in place has been impacted by lack of public transit.
The final Chasing the Dream episode of No Limits looks at the future of work.
Guests: Marquita Walker, IUPUI School of Social Work in Labor Studies; Jessica Fraser, Institute for Working Families.