When Gabrielle Threet turned 7, her life was supposed to get better.
Threet, 21, said she spent her early years living with her three siblings and single mother, who drank heavily and struggled to make ends meet.
When she finally left her home for foster care, Threet said, it seemed like a new beginning. Instead it was the start of a nightmare.
"I fought for what color I was, what I wore, what I said," she said.
Threet was one of several speakers at the Women for Human Rights and Dignity's 28th annual panel and luncheon. The forum, called the Power and Penalties of Poverty and You, highlighted the ways the system the government has set up to help the poor is broken.
Six other representatives also spoke at Saturday's forum in the Millennium Airport Hotel on Walden Avenue in Cheektowaga, including psychiatrist Jeffrey Grace and Erie County Judge Rosalie Bailey.
University at Buffalo professor Henry Taylor discussed how the federal government's policies limit the ability of the poor to move up the economic ladder. Buffalo News columnist Rod Watson urged audience members to tell editors that they want to hear more stories about the struggles of the lower class. And the Rev. Gloria Payne-Carter, a rector at St. Philip's Episcopal Church, said that God created humans in abundance and that poverty was a sin.
In her talk, Threet argued that bad government policies often hurt the people they are trying to help. She said that because foster care workers try to place children in neighborhoods that resemble the ones they come from, she was brought to a home in an East Side "ghetto."
Threet said her first foster mother wouldn't buy her personal hygiene products or clothes; instead, she paid the bills with her monthly government-issued stipend.
Threet resorted to stealing and hoping that the next place she lived would be better. But she moved seven times, and she said it never got better.
"The welfare system . . . changes the road a person's life will take," she said. "I don't know if [the government] understands that."
Threet said she knew she had to turn her life around the day she, her sister and her sister's three small children were evicted from their apartment. A few hours later, her principal called to tell her if she missed one more day of high school, she would not graduate.
Threet returned to foster care so that she could focus on graduating from Emerson Vocational High School. She did so and went on to earn an associate's degree from Erie Community College.
She told the audience she will study social work at Buffalo State College in the fall, an announcement that was met with a standing ovation.
"The cycle of poverty is one that I do not want to repeat," she said.
Other panelists also urged the audience of about 50 community leaders to take action.
"The poor are voiceless," said The News' Watson. "We have to be their voices."