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Buffalo looks for lessons from Rochester’s fight against poverty

ROCHESTER – They’ve got a goal – and the governor’s attention.

Community leaders in Rochester have embarked on the ambitious goal of trying to cut the city’s poverty rate by half in 15 years.

Some don’t think it’s possible. Others say Rochester could be a model for places like Buffalo, offering a road map for how to tackle a problem that has plagued cities for decades.

“It’s a big problem here, but we’re small enough that, if we could actually figure out a way to move the needle, then it could be replicated,” said Scott C. Benjamin, president of Charles Settlement House in Rochester.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Rochester’s poverty efforts show “great promise.”

Rochester’s efforts could offer insights and strategies for Buffalo, where Mayor Byron W. Brown’s “Poverty Reduction Blueprint” in 2009 did not offer any measurable policy recommendations or timetables for reaching its goals, and where Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz last year convened an anti-poverty committee.

Rochester got a head start with the state’s involvement, but now Buffalo will receive $2.75 million from the Empire State Poverty Reduction Initiative, modeled on New York’s Rochester Anti-Poverty Task Force.

Brown called the effort in Rochester part of a “brilliant” plan by Cuomo to apply state resources toward a broader effort that brings government, nonprofits, businesses and communities together to solve a problem.

“It is my belief that we will move in the same direction here in the city of Buffalo, and all of those efforts that the various stakeholders in this community are engaged in will be merged together,” Brown said. “Clearly, the governor is saying it is impossible for any community, any one government, to address this issue by itself.”

In both Buffalo and Rochester, roughly one of every three residents lives in poverty, with higher rates of children growing up poor.

Those on the front lines of Rochester’s anti-poverty efforts question if cutting poverty rates by half is realistic.

When asked about the goal, the heads of three anti-poverty agencies in Rochester reacted the same way during a joint interview: They laughed.

“I can’t serve everyone who’s in poverty, and I can’t give them everything that they need to come out of poverty,” said Ron Thomas, head of the Baden Street Settlement House. “The resources are simply not there.”

Rochester’s plight

The Rochester poverty initiative started about two years ago. The region created steering committees to identify the barriers that prevent people from escaping poverty. Changes on the ground are hard to find, because the bureaucratic changes must still be made and new models created to turn recommendations into practice.

The city joined the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative, which works with Cuomo’s Rochester Anti-Poverty Task Force. Some 1,000 people offered input.

Most recently, a team from IBM spent nearly a month last fall looking into the problem.

But everyone agrees the effort is still in its infancy.

“The jury is still out, for sure,” said Karen Elam, deputy director of the Rochester Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative.

Poverty in Rochester isn’t relegated to miles-long stretches of rundown housing in distressed neighborhoods.

It’s threaded through downtown, near businesses, shops, some still-thriving manufacturers and abandoned buildings.

Baden Street Settlement House headquarters sits in a weathered, brick building – once an infirmary – surrounded by nine housing projects. During a drive through the city, Thomas, the agency’s executive director, talked about the poverty-stricken neighborhoods interwoven throughout the shrinking city. He pointed out the stained roofline of an old Bausch & Lomb building and the Kodak Tower in the distance, one of the few remaining buildings of the city’s once-giant Eastman Kodak empire of 60,000 employees in the 1980s.

He talked about Wollensak Optical Co., and its once-elegant headquarters on Hudson Avenue. The four-story building for a maker of camera shutters is now a study in broken windows, ripped plastic sheeting blowing in the wind where windows once hung.

Clapboard homes and rusted chain-link fencing abutted other homes, some occupied and some vacant. In one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, the Charles Settlement House worked with a private developer to build 28 housing structures, filling in vacant lots in a six-block area.

This is where poverty lives.

Three settlement houses – century-old human services agencies that offer anti-poverty assistance and programs from childhood through old age – are found in the northwest and northeast sections of what is starkly referred to as the “Fatal Crescent,” the crescent-shape of poverty that lies in the heart of the city.

Those who work here know this: No simple answers can fix such a complex problem.

Rochester’s ‘bold goal’

In Rochester, the goal to reduce poverty by 50 percent in 15 years has captured attention.

Rochester Mayor Lovely A. Warren said the city started with a smaller goal: a 1 percent reduction in poverty in two years in one area of the city.

“We started with a smaller geographic area,” said Warren, who was involved in creating the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative, kicked off by Cuomo among others.

But now, the city has adopted the 50 percent goal.

“That’s not a number that we pulled out of thin air,” Elam said. “We did a lot of research.”

But she called it “a bold goal.”

To mitigate political influence and self-serving agendas, the United Way has been tapped as a third-party organization to run the task force and the working groups that are assigned different elements of the anti-poverty game plan, from housing and workforce development to neighborhoods.

Some say the Rochester model can work in Buffalo.

The Rev. Kinzer M. Pointer, head of the Erie County anti-poverty committee established last year by Poloncarz, agreed that Rochester’s broader look at poverty should be emulated.

“It’s really unfair to say Rochester. It’s Monroe County. And they’ve taken a regional approach,” Pointer said. “I suggest to you that we need to take a regional approach.”

Report findings

After IBM studied poverty in Rochester, it delivered an analysis of what is happening – and how it can be improved.

If Rochester’s poverty fighters want to dramatically reduce poverty, IBM said, they need to address the different and fragmented programs aiming to assist poor residents. Few show evidence of success.

Among the recommendations: Better data-sharing about the families they serve across human services organizations, more consistency of eligibility requirements across agencies, empowering neighborhoods and local businesses to partner in creating solutions, and more proactive efforts to keep people from falling into the cycle of poverty in the first place.

Across the board, the report said, outcomes should be measured in realistic, person-centered terms. The community should focus less on quantifying services provided and more on gains by individuals and families over time.

Brown said his administration’s 77-page “Buffalo Poverty Reduction Blueprint” in 2009 made similar recommendations for better collaboration and coordination. The centerpiece of his report was the establishment of a task force with four work groups, each charged with developing a five-year strategy for reducing poverty in the areas of jobs, education, neighborhoods and social environment. At the time, Brown took heat from some activists and the media, because they said his blueprint lacked solutions other than to conclude a task force was necessary.

Now, Brown stresses Buffalo’s economic development efforts – not work groups and five-year plans – to fight poverty. New companies will create 12,000 jobs in Buffalo over the next few years, and those jobs will make a difference in the anti-poverty effort, he said.

“Economic development is key,” Brown said.

Brown cited a difference between what Buffalo tried to do in 2009 and what Rochester is trying to do now.

“It seemed, at that time, all of the onus was put on the city,” Brown said.

A deeper look

Those at human services agencies in Rochester say the issue runs deeper than the need for better collaboration.

“I’m not saying that better coordination couldn’t improve some things,” said Benjamin, president of Charles Settlement House. “But I have said to people before, we can’t case-manage our way out of this. We can have the most coordinated services in the world, but if there aren’t enough services, or enough resources, then all you’ve got is a lot of people being told where they ought to go and what ought to be done, but you can’t actually do it.”

Tynia Feaster-Byrd, 57, knows how quickly someone can become a food pantry recipient. Feaster-Byrd, a former Buffalo resident and retired Army veteran, was living a middle-class existence in Charlotte, N.C., as a document manager in the engineering industry. Then she got laid off.

The divorced mother of two moved to Rochester more than two years ago to be closer to her extended family but couldn’t find work. She moved shortly before Thanksgiving and rented a home for $1,200 a month. It wasn’t until she got her first utility bill that she realized her home had no insulation. She couldn’t afford the winter bills.

So she turned to Community Place for food. In exchange, she volunteers there, doing her part to earn what she receives from the agency each week.

Feaster-Byrd said she’s attended two town hall meetings and heard about the region’s intention to make anti-poverty efforts a higher priority. But she’s still waiting for action.

“You have to show people that there’s going to be some change,” she said.

But others don’t have her hope, she said. They live in shoddy homes and pay exorbitant prices at corner food stores.

“They think this is the way it’s going to be,“ said Feaster-Byrd, who recently found a job.

For frontline advocates, the solution to poverty comes down to money and jobs.

Rodric Cox-Cooper, CEO of Community Place of Greater Rochester, pointed to the same disconnect that exists in Rochester and Buffalo – businesses that complain they have jobs they can’t fill, and residents who can’t find work.

“These are not growing regions. If jobs are going unfilled and people are unemployed, to me, there should ultimately be some matching that gets done,” he said. Few disagree with the recent IBM recommendations.

But the idea of better measuring outcomes when trying to lift people out of poverty presents challenges, Benjamin said. Giving someone the money to buy food doesn’t create a magical outcome for anyone.

“I’m all for evidence-based programs and using outcomes,” he said. “But outside of my family, the things I had that shaped me most were probably the coaches I had in Little League baseball, the Scout leaders in Boy Scouts and church youth group. They actually made me what I am, and you couldn’t prove an outcome of any of them.”

Despite this, Benjamin says he remains “cautiously optimistic” the renewed focus on poverty in Rochester could lead to positive changes.

“The best thing about all of this is that we actually have discussions about poverty that’s not just in the neighborhoods where our organizations are,” he said.

State involvement

Rochester has just come through its planning phase. Warren, the city’s mayor, called 2016 “the year of implementation.”

In Buffalo, things aren’t as far along.

But Poloncarz has emphasized substance over speed, Pointer said. He said the committee may have some recommendations as early as this fall.

“This county executive is broad in his approach to this, and courageous,” Pointer said. “He, to his credit, has said we want to know exactly how we can make things better.”

When asked about Rochester’s ambitious goal of cutting poverty in half, Brown said, “It’s always great to set goals, because it gives us something to shoot for.”

But Brown hasn’t committed Buffalo to a similar goal.

Brown called state resources a key to bringing government agencies, nonprofits and others together to work toward reducing poverty.

“When we combine all of these things, I think you’ll see very, very powerful results,” Brown said.

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