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In the last two decades, Savannah has seen remarkable development. The port is now one of the busiest in America. The Historic District is a world-class tourist destination. City Market has been revitalized and Ellis Square is being reimagined.

Run-down neighborhoods have been restored. West Chatham is being rapidly developed, as are the outlying counties of Bryan and Effingham.

However, even as the city’s economic growth has soared, that good fortune hasn’t always trickled down to the local poverty level. More than one in five people in Savannah — 22 percent of the population — lives in poverty. Not only does this affect people in poverty, it keeps the community as a whole from reaching its full potential.

More than 80 local organizations have banded together to seek solutions to poverty in Savannah. The result is the Step Up Savannah Anti-Poverty Initiative, which offers job training programs that are designed to train unskilled workers who want better jobs.

Twenty-five families were chosen for the pilot program and paired with volunteers called family partners who are guiding them in their journey. The families were chosen based on interviews, and also had to meet certain criteria, including an agreement to “step up” and participate in planning and implementing the program.

One of the first things learned from this experiment is that stereotypes just don’t hold up. There are 25 families in the program and each has its own unique situation.

For example, Troy James wasn’t always poor. The married father of three children, ages 15, 11 and 8, works hard as a dump truck driver. “I’ve been doing that for eight or nine years,” he says.

But last year, a truck flipped over with James inside, ending up in a ditch. His ankle was broken and he sustained a shoulder injury.

While the injuries weren’t life-threatening, they were serious enough to keep James from working for 10 months. “I’m just now recovering,” he says.

James has learned that nearly a year is a long time to go without an income. “I have a family of five to provide for. We’re really not getting anywhere. There are payments to pay, bills to pay. Sometimes, we can’t pay and something gets cut off,” he says.

“The house we were in was falling apart, so we moved into my aunt’s house,” James says. “It’s a step up, but it’s not ours.”

Then there’s the car — or rather, lack of. “Our car is no good anymore,” James says, but with the current situation, replacing it is impossible.

James recently returned to work, and while he’s relieved to be working again, he’s taken a further step to lift his family out of poverty. He signed up for the 25 families program in the hope that it will bring a better life.

“They have different programs for manufacturing, construction work, working in the hospitals,” James says. “Some I couldn’t get into a couple of months ago because I was on crutches, but there are other programs now, and I am looking into them.”

The program also paired the James family with Jim and Janet Stevenson, their family partners. “They’ve helped us as much as they can,” James says. “People like them are doing things all over the community.”

Family partners are community volunteers who work with the families, learn from them, identify common themes for the program’s action teams and help the families as they move out of poverty. Their help has been appreciated.

“Some situations have been tough,” James says. “People need help. My family needs help.”

The prospect of getting a better-paying job allows James to dream. “Maybe eventually I’ll own my own truck, or something like that,” he says.

His wife, Jovonna, also has a dream — to have her own child-care business. Janet Stevenson is convinced the Jameses will be successful.

“One thing we believe is that it’s not just Troy in this, it’s his entire family,” Stevenson says. “They’re a very strong family unit. We feel fortunate to be working with a family that has the father and the mother both in the home.

“They have a desire to succeed, to make some changes to provide things for themselves and their children,” she says. “They have a willingness to work and they value education.”

The James children consistently earn spots on the honor roll, a matter of family pride.

“Another thing that will help Troy is that the situation was brought about because of a work-related accident,” Stevenson says. “It took longer than expected, but he has recovered and returned to work. We’re especially grateful his employer was willing to take him back.”

As soon as the Stevensons were assigned to mentor the Jameses, their partnership began. “We set some goals,” Stevenson says. “We worked with them on a budget. We listen and try to be supportive.”

Stevenson’s husband, Jim, began volunteering with what would become Step Up Savannah back in 2003. “He was working with Savannah Electric at the time, and there was a group of people who decided they wanted to look into the issue of poverty,” Stevenson says.

“He felt it was important and was really drawn to work on it,” she says. “He certainly understood the impact poverty has on economic development.

“We became a family partner when the 25 family project started last July,” Stevenson says. “I could tell it was something he was really committed to.”

The Stevensons introduced their own sons, who are 17 and 14, to the Jameses. “We enjoy doing things together and we’ve tried to make it a real family partnership,” Stevenson says. “We meet face-to-face at least once a month and we talk more frequently than that.”

The family partners do more than just assist their family. “We’re working to identify the barriers that prevent people from getting out of poverty,” Stevenson says.

“We’re raising public awareness of available resources,” she says. “We’re committed to helping a family directly by being a resource for them and we’re hoping this indirectly helps others. “

Being a family partner is not without its difficulties. “One of the greatest frustrations is that we were hoping to have an impact quickly,” Stevenson says. “It’s hard to accept that long-term solutions are going to take a while.

“We’re beginning to learn that there are a multitude of problems faced by these families on a daily basis,” she says. “Do they buy medicine or pay the rent? Do they buy gas or food?

“There are people in the community who make those decisions every day,” Stevenson says. “We’d like to think everything could be fixed in a hurry, but it took a long time to get in the situation and it will take a long time to get out of it.”

Daniel Dodd is the Step Up project director. “Everyone’s been moved by the tremendous amount of support,” he says. “Our action teams are really stepping up and volunteering for the process of helping people move to self-sufficiency.

“The volunteers are really working with the families and learning with the families,” Dodd says. “It’s very enriching. It’s been really inspiring for all of us.”

Dale Carlson-Bebout is Communications Director and Programs Support for Step Up Savannah.

“Our role is to work with existing agencies and facilities,” she says. “It’s not just about getting a job. It’s about the support a family needs when coming from poverty.”

Most of the jobs participants are hired for are entry-level positions, but Carlson-Bebout says that’s just the beginning. “It isn’t the entry-level job that will get them out of poverty, but if they advance from there to other higher-paying jobs, it might,” she says.

There is an economic component to the program. “We’re helping people who’ve never dealt with financial institutions or budgets to learn money management,” Carlson-Bebout says. “We’re focusing on getting the banks to work with the unbanked.”

Participants also are learning about credit counseling and the earned income tax credit. “We help them build their assets, buy a home, start a savings program,” Carlson-Bebout says.

Step Up will be considered an ultimate success when the 2010 census reflects a reduction of poverty in the highest census tracts based on the 2000 census, Carlson-Bebout says.

“That is the mayor’s feeling. The work will never be done, since we are looking at those in poverty, unemployed and the working poor,” she says.

“There are milestones each year about our goals and successes within the individual action teams and those are used as yearly benchmarks for forward movement toward the ultimate poverty reduction goals.”

Chatham County recently was awarded a Georgia County Excellence Award for demonstrating its commitment to reducing poverty and breaking its systemic causes through Step Up.

“Foundations like the Ford Foundation have seen our model as very effective, primarily due to the integration of business in all aspects of the work,” Carlson-Bebout says.

The poor pay out a higher percentage of their income for necessities, leaving little or no money for extras. And sometimes, solutions bring more problems.

More than 50 percent of all job growth will occur in western Chatham County over the next 10 years, and employers will need an available workforce. But workers will need transportation to get there, and for many low-income families, owning a vehicle is an expense they simply can’t afford.

“Some of the municipalities have opted out of CAT,” Carlson-Bebout says. “Employers are saying, ‘bring us a pool of labor.’ Now there is an opportunity for jobs, but some people have no way to get there.”

Solutions might include providing bus passes for workings, or establishing some type of transport system. So far, Step Up is meeting the challenges.

“We’re coming up on one year of working with the 25 families,” Carlson-Bebout says. “It’s been very, very positive, especially for the families. Several families are in jobs through the program.

“People tend to have stereotypes,” she says. “They tend to focus on single mothers who don’t have health care, but some families in poverty have both the father and mother in home. It isn’t exactly what you would expect.”

Some low-income families are reluctant to share their problems. “A lot fell to the family partners to uncover,” Carlson-Bebout says. “Just because people live in poverty doesn’t mean they don’t have pride.

“The partners have helped people get their electricity put back on,” she says. “Another partner went and worked with a health care provider to help someone who was having a hard time paying a medical bill.

“They’re helping people get back on their feet,” Carlson-Bebout says. “They’re helping break the cycle without being rude or overbearing or disrespectful of people’s dignity.”

City Manager Michael Brown is credited with implementing the Step Up program, although he modestly says he merely helped kick it off.

“I kept seeing the poor quality of life issues that revolve around poverty,”
he says. “A lot of us have stressful things in our lives. People in poverty feel them every day.”

Brown often sees the effects of poverty in his job. “The city is in the utility business,” he says. “It’s heart-rending to me to hear people saying all they think about is how to get their water turned back on, their power turned back on.”

The city already has tackled other issues of poverty, such as implementing the neighborhood revitalization program. “For a long time, Savannah has been revitalizing neighborhoods,” Brown says. “We’ve really done a lot.”

But barriers such as low family income, teen pregnancy and other problems are keeping residents in poverty. “We kept looking at the statistics,” Brown says. “I started talking to people about what we can reasonably do. It gets overwhelming, but I believe we can come up with something practical.”

The 25 families program is helping identify the barriers to self-sufficiency, Brown says. “We’re learning which are external, institutional, cultural and self-imposed,” he says.

Brown knows the process will be slow.

“We have to work through the system. When in overwhelming situations, you’ve got to do something first, then do something second, and then do it together,” he says.

“When you’re in poverty, the utilities are constantly going on and off. People say, ‘I could get a better job, but then I’d have to get child care.’ Something must be done, because there are 10,000 to 12,000 people in poverty in Savannah,” Brown says.

“I know families in poverty are overwhelmed by burdens. We’re looking at the essentials and working to fix one piece at a time,” says the city manager.

“Some people get discouraged. But we’ve got to figure this thing out if we want to have a better quality of life for our families who are living in poverty.”

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