Our Eyes Were Opened

Leave a comment

What’s the Definition of Affordable?

Affordable is a nondescript word. However, it gets used a lot, especially now in Greenville while the City works with their consultant and other groups planning to build more “affordable housing.”

When people with resources apply the word affordable to housing, their definition of affordable may be more perception than reality. They may picture high rise buildings that are dilapidated, crime-ridden, dirty, and trashy … where “those people” live. The idea of “affordable housing” being built in or near their homes becomes threatening, indeed. NIMBY (not in my backyard) becomes virulent. That’s one understanding of affordable.

To people on the other end of the economic spectrum, affordable means having a home that their meager income allows without the landlord or mortgage company pounding on their door every week.  Homes that are safe, well-maintained, lovely…and affordable… would certainly be nice but are not readily available in many cases.  Affordable in this scenario allows for not only rent to be paid but also food, medical care, clothing for work, and childcare.

When people who are housing advocates or housing developers talk about affordable housing, even then the definition is murky. Is the definition of affordable based on the area medium income (AMI) which is about $66,000 in our area? If so, affordable housing defined as a percentage of the AMI can require household incomes of $52,800 (80% AMI) to $99,000 (150% AMI).

Basing the formula for affordability on the poverty guidelines is a different story. In 2017, the federal poverty guideline for a family of four is $24,600. So affordable based on 50% of the poverty guideline for a family of four is income of no more than $12,300 while 200% of the poverty guideline allows an income up to  $49,200.

There is quite a discrepancy between $12,300 (50% poverty guideline) and $99,000 (150% AMI).  Both the AMI and the federal poverty guideline are used in different situations as THE definition of affordable.

Another definition for affordable is rent costing $500 or less a month. That becomes extremely hard for the grandmother who is living on her Supplemental Security Income of $770 a month.

Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) guideline is that no more than 30% of a household’s income should be used on housing (including utilities). Since studio apartments in some of the new housing complexes in and around downtown Greenville have rents ranging from $800 to $1400, the HUD recommendation is income of $32,000-$56,000. Can a four-person moderate income household afford this studio unit?  One-bedroom units are renting from $1000-$1800 a month with utilities not included (annual income of $40,000 -$72,000.)

Low and moderate income people may not define these units as affordable.

Our burgeoning tourist and convention economy means that visitors spent $1.145 billion in Greenville County in 2015 and the accommodations revenue increased by 65% in the City of Greenville in 2015. This is significant and important when we think about housing for low and moderate income people. Do employees in the hospitality industry who clean the hotels, bus the tables, wash the dishes, and clerk in the retail shops earn enough to afford the new units being built in the urban area?  Are they able to live near their work place?  If they choose to live in housing that low and moderate income people can pay a reasonable price for, are they close to their work in the hotels and restaurants?  Where do the people live who clean up after the wonderful street festivals? Where can they find a home that they can pay for?  And then can they get to work?

‘Work force housing” is another term used occasionally to mean affordable. These homes may cost less than the open market can bear so work force housing indeed addresses the needs of some low and moderate income people.  People who are often eligible for work force housing include teachers, fire fighters, police officers, and health care workers.  Some communities have built neighborhoods or apartment units specifically for these vital workers so that the town can have quality teachers, fire fighters, police officers, and health care workers. The downside of this definition for affordable is that it rightly expects the people who live in these homes to have a steady income, few credit issues, no criminal record, non-evident mental illness, and/or a steady income.

The good news is that our community is primed to address the issue of affordable housing. Let’s just make sure that everyone is using the same definition of affordable.



Defining Success

When I worked at a large nonprofit that offered people who lived in poverty life changing opportunities, the work was sometimes frustrating. We had to redefine success. Some people in the community thought our success should be defined as our taking a street prostitute and turning her into a school teacher. The likelihood of that happening was extremely slim! However, when we defined success as the street prostitute admits she has a drug problem, we and she could keep going.

Success was when she wanted to get into drug treatment; success was when she actually entered drug treatment. Then success was completing drug treatment.  Success was being clean one week after drug treatment. And if she failed this time, maybe…maybe the next time would be the time that took. And in the meanwhile, we succeeded when we were able to stay in relationship with her, enjoying her, and we all kept on going.

Of course, there were some days when we wanted to put our own hands around her neck and choke her. That was real, too. Then we’d go behind a closed door and scream, grab another staff person and complain, or leave the building to just get away from everything.

Sometimes we laughed. One woman who was a self-mutilator with a border-line personality cracked us up when she told us about propositioning Santa Claus in the bar at a local hotel!

We might give people names that we’d use for them….in private, of course. “Praise the Lord” was a participant who said “Praise the Lord” every three words. These irreverent words used only amongst the staff were ways to transcend the misery  we encountered every day and maintain our own sanity.

Agency staff members don’t usually share this side of the work because most people would not understand. The community may expect staff members to be all-loving and all-giving. The community might demand that the staffs of helping agencies assuage the community guilt by always BEING THERE and always DOING GOOD. When a staff member buys into that philosophy too much, then he stresses out or she no longer functions as a servant to the very people she wants to help. Sometimes simply showing up is a powerful measure of success.

Some truisms helped:

We’re not called to be successful. We’re called to be faithful.

Just as there are many parts in the body, there are many gifts.

I am one person. When lots of us do what we have the skills to do, then change happens.

Things happen when we’re not concerned about who gets the credit.

I am not the messiah. We’ve already had one of those.

Leave a comment

Loving Others as They Are

Do we reach out to others because we want to change them or because we love them as they are? What a question. Of course, we want people to improve their lives. Why else would we offer services and provide opportunities?  We want them to be different than they are. We want to help them change. Occasionally, when we’re honest, we want to change them ourselves!

What an arrogant and ignorant thought. It’s hard to change ourselves, much less anyone else. But sometimes …sometimes…when we work with someone, that person becomes our personal project. We work to help them plan better, be more responsible, quit doing harmful activities, buck up, become educated, get a job. And we do all these things with the best of intentions. We truly want to help. We want others to enjoy some of the rewards we claim because we know how to plan, be responsible, buck up, and the rest. Yeah, right.  Goodness knows, I’ve spent much of my adult life providing life changing opportunities to others through my work at United Ministries. And now I’m helping people understand more about people who live in poverty through Our Eyes Were Opened, Inc.

All these thoughts stirred up in me when I read Simone Weil’s words from Waiting for God. She said, “I have the essential need, and I think I can say the vocation, to move among men [sic] of every class and complexion, mixing with them and sharing their life and outlook, so far that is to say as conscience allows, merging into the crowd and disappearing among them, so that they show themselves as they are, putting off all disguises with me. It is because I long to know them so as to love them just as they are. For if I do not love them as they are, it will not be they whom I love, and my love will be unreal.”  (Emphasis mine.)

When we start with genuine love with no agenda beyond that, who knows what may happen? Hopefully, all of us find the joy of a mutual relationship where we each care for the other.

People who are called to move into low income neighborhoods, not because they have to but because they want to, do so because they choose to become intentional neighbors. They move in order to help build community. They move into the area to love their neighbors just as they are. Then there’s the possibility of new life for all. Love is amazing like that!

Leave a comment

School Begins

August 12

When Ber-ber went to the store today, she picked up the list of the school supplies that we’ll need this year. I looked at the list and my heart just fell to my feet. There’s no way that Mama can afford all this stuff. I don’t know if I’ll even show her the list. That will just make her feel bad.

 August 16

Even though I hadn’t shown Mama the list of school supplies, Ber-ber asked her if she’d seen it. Mama cut her eyes over at me and said, “No, should I have?”

I hung my head and said that I must have lost it.

Ber-ber said, “Child, you’d lose your head if it wasn’t fastened to your body. But don’t you worry. I know what you will do.”

Then she looked at Mama and said, “You go right down to the agency on Center Street and sign up for school supplies. They’ll give you what you need for your kids so don’t you worry. Your children will march into school just like everybody else with everything that’s on the list.”

At that, I smiled. Then I hugged Ber-ber with the biggest hug I could and whispered, “Thank you.”

September 6

I am so embarrassed. Our school tries its best not to let it be known who gets free lunch and who doesn’t. But some girls in my class figured out that I didn’t pay for my meals at school. I saw them whispering and glancing over at me. One of them tried to be nice and offered me a candy bar but that actually made it worse. I felt so little. I couldn’t even afford a candy bar. When she tried to be generous, her friends realized that I was poor and needed help. She wasn’t trying to be mean but it came across that way. It hurt because I really did want that treat but I wasn’t about to let that girl know how bad it was for me.

If you want to know more about Angelika, you can read about her in Angelika’s Journal, available at avenidabooks.com, at Ten Thousand Villages on Main Street in Greenville, SC, at Fiction Addiction behind Haywood Mall, or at online retailers. 

Leave a comment

Psalm of Lament

Holy God, Proclaimer of Justice, are you awake?

Ordinary folks who simply worked their jobs,

Paid their bills, loved their children,

Come seeking help.

Their world has fallen apart

Through no fault of their own.

So they come.

Political leaders, who are charged with looking after us

Seem out of touch

Spend money on death, not life

Close their eyes to long term solutions

Seeking only votes

So they don’t come.

People with financial resources

Fear, fret, worry, fight,

Close their doors, their hearts

Protect, defend

So they may not come.

And yet….

People come with tears, fears,

They come with yearning, hoping,

They come with visions and nightmares.

They come looking for …. looking for…. looking for…..

Holy God, are you awake?


Leave a comment

Volunteers are Wonderful!

Volunteers are wonderful. Through my time at United Ministries and also now with Our Eyes Were Opened, Inc., I realized that I could not do the work I do without volunteers.

Every time I facilitate a poverty simulation, I need at least thirteen volunteers.  The learning experience truly could not happen without them! Some of the “vendors” in the simulation have been working with me since I first began facilitating the simulation. Others participated in the simulation and decided that they wanted to be “on the other side of the table!”  Couples, college students, retired folks, teachers on summer break, people actively employed, and others volunteer.  They pitch in when someone can’t come at the last minute. They are willing to learn roles other than the one they usually do. They simply make my life easier and the experience for the participants meaningful.

I was recently in Columbia with Imagine School and they got volunteers from a church. These folks were motivated, quick learners, and inspired and inspiring through their gift of time and themselves.  I enjoyed working with them. I am constantly amazed how the simulation always works out…even when I have logistical problems or brand new volunteers who’ve never even seen the simulation.  All my worry and literal nightmares are for nothing because of the amazing, wonderful, terrific volunteers. What a true blessing for me and everyone whom they interact with through their thoughtful and generous sharing.