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Don't forget those who are truly in need

Think of the Buffalo tour that tourists never get.

You won't see this part of the region when network TV swoops in for a tightrope walk or a Buffalo Bills game.

In fact, you might not see this part of Buffalo Niagara even if you live only a few blocks or a few miles away.

And therein lies the problem.

A "poverty tour" of low-income Buffalo neighborhoods, organized this week by the Homeless Alliance of Western New York, helped those already interested – such as board members of community agencies – get a better grasp of the challenges of living on a low or nonexistent income.

But amid a political season that's focused almost exclusively on the middle class, galvanizing support to help the poor lift themselves is a challenge all its own.

Those who took the tour already are part of the choir. The question is how to generate similar interest among other Western New Yorkers facing their own struggles, who may not be convinced yet that Buffalo's poverty drags the entire region down.

Concentrated poverty cuts people off from jobs, creating a mismatch between employment opportunities and those seeking work, said Sam Magavern, co-director of the Partnership for the Public Good. You can see that in the extra transportation costs as businesses and the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority figure out how to get inner-city people to where the jobs are.

You also see it in the extra costs that the poor, often using government aid, pay for goods and services as mainstream businesses abandon neighborhoods and are replaced by corner check-cashers and rent-to-own stores that charge exorbitant prices, "wasting a lot of money that should be going to better uses," Magavern said.

And you see it in the extra costs of trying to educate kids who grow up in concentrated poverty and incarcerating those who fall through the cracks – costs also borne by taxpayers.

With those realities as ammunition, Magavern said, agencies and charities that fight poverty are working on a public awareness campaign that will include town hall meetings and a WNED documentary.

Despite the challenges of dispelling myths and educating the public, there is reason for hope. While some of the statistics are daunting – nearly 30 percent of Buffalonians are poor – poverty in the region is below the national average.

That means we have the ability to address it.

As the tour bus crisscrossed the city, there were signs of hope on the ground: a Sobieski Street neighborhood being revitalized by Muslims who are moving in near Darul-Uloom Mosque; the vitality of the Jefferson-Utica area, which has seen both city and private investment; PUSH Buffalo's work on energy-efficient homes on the West Side; and Habitat for Humanity's houses in the Sycamore Street-Johnson Street area.

Solving the conundrum of concentrated poverty would lift the region as a whole and free taxpayers from the high public costs that accompany the fact that Buffalo is the nation's third-poorest big city. That's the message behind the Homeless Alliance tour.

"We're just trying to get people to think about poverty and homelessness," said Dale Zuchlewski, executive director.

To paraphrase the old oil filter commercial: We can think about it now, or we can think about it later.