Breaking the Cycle: The face of poverty in Memphis

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- In order to truly understand poverty and how it hurts our community, you need to see the face of it and its long, lasting impact.

WREG met three families and gave each of them cameras to document their daily lives, struggles, hopes and dreams.

Their stories reveal how more than anything, each family hopes to break the cycle, for the next generation.

Like the loop that surrounds Memphis, poverty permeates certain neighborhoods, zip codes and races of people, creating dividing lines that for some, are nearly impossible to cross.

Georgina Woods is a wife and mother of eight. In her neighborhood, more than 30% of the people live in poverty.

She told us, "It`s a struggle out here."

"I'm trying to make it, like other people trying to make it," said Frayser resident Alicia Jackson.

Some are born into poverty, while others simply fall on hard times.

Bonnie Brown told WREG, "People think just because I work a nine to five, that I haven't had any adversity in my life, but I have."

So while poverty surrounds us, what you assume is its face can be deceiving.

"They're regular people just like you and me," says Amy Barnes, who runs Family Promise of Memphis, a program that helps displaced families go from homeless to housing.

She said, "It's a misconception that it's because a person's not working hard, or being lazy that this has happened to them."

Georgina sometimes works six or seven days a week. "I may pull a whole 14," she explained.

Yet it`s still not enough to make ends meet. Georgina has lived in Highland Heights all her life.

She and her husband have been married for nine years and were high school sweethearts.

Georgina`s mother died when she was just 10 years old, and with help from an aunt and grandmother she says, "She raised me, me and my husband we raised ourselves."

Georgina and Chris both dropped out of high school after having their first child which meant growing up fast.

"If you don`t work, your kids won`t eat, your bills won`t get paid."

Georgina has two jobs, Chris works roughly three days a week and is going back to school.

After cleaning hotel rooms, Georgina spends her one-off day doing the same at home.

"I get the light bill today and you open it up and you get what, a cut off notice for $665."

However, Georgina says it's not because, she`s six months behind.

Georgina said her monthly power bill usually runs more than $300. That's for a house that`s only around 800 square feet.

Still, she and Chris make it work, and teach their children to be thankful.

"No matter how hard it gets, no matter if you get a job that`s paying $5, you make the best of that five $5."

24-year-old Alicia Jackson is a single mother with two kids and another on the way.

"I`m looking for another job, but it`s just hard out here," said Alicia as she spoke into the camera provided by WREG.

Despite living in a home with no furniture, and in a neighborhood riddled with crime, it`s all hers and Alicia is hopeful.

The young mother has had a rough life, but is extremely grateful and relies on her faith in God.

She said, "I always keep my head up, I always keep my faith and hope up because I know I'm going to make it."

Alicia is also determined for her kids to do better.

"I walk my daughter to school every day, faithfully. I love walking my daughter to school...I want to make sure she's safe."

Alicia dropped out of high school, but wants to go back to get her GED and eventually work in health care.

She says she teaches her children, "The good path for you is to stay in school, get your education, go to college and make something out of yourself."

Her biggest worry, is her children`s safety.

"I would love for my community to be better, without drugs and guns because you can't let your kids go outside without somebody arguing or fighting or something like that."

Alicia says the young people in her Frayser neighborhood don't seem to care about other lives.

"People are getting killed over nothing, kids are getting shot over bullets that don`t have no eyes."

What is clear to see is the connection between crime and poverty.

For 41-year-old Bonnie Brown, a wrong turn took a long time to right.

"I just got a job. I`ve been looking for a job since I got out of jail," Bonnie said as she spoke into the camera.

She used to be an addict.

"I lived in the streets, I slept in abandoned buildings."

Drug charges led to prison, and later an inability to find a job.

"I have an Associate`s Degree in Sociology, but the decisions that I made to caused me to get a record, I couldn`t use my degree."

However, thanks to a couple of non-profits and the re-entry program, Bonnie is finally on a path toward progress.

"I work at the Division of Community Services."

Bonnie is now looking for her own apartment and she loves and appreciates her job.

"This job that I`ve worked really hard to get over the past few months, it may not be much to somebody, but it`s a lot to me," said Bonnie.

University of Memphis Department of Social Work professor Dr. Elena Delavega conducts and publishes in-depth research regarding poverty.

Memphis Poverty Fact Sheet

She says breaking the cycle means starting with help for mothers.

"By leaving a tremendous number of the population behind, we`re hurting all of ourselves," says Dr. Delavega.

She urges, "We provide public transportation, childcare, education and raise the minimum wage."

Delavaga says from a dollars and cents perspective alone, imagine what fewer people in poverty would mean for Memphis` economy.

"We`re thinking about tapping markets in South America and China, we have an untapped market right here!"

Reverend Brian Henderson is the pastor of Parkway Gardens United Presbyterian Church in Whitehaven.

The church serves as a shelter for families who are in the Family Promise program.

Church classrooms are converted into bedrooms and members of the congregation help serve the families meals and fellowship with them during their stay.

"The cycle of poverty is stopped when we shift our perspective on poverty," says Rev. Henderson.

Rather than addressing the problems, he says the community should put its efforts into prevention.

"We begin to really start thinking how to make sure jobs are available for people to prevent poverty, make sure young people are prepared and educated to prevent poverty," explained Reverend Henderson.

Memphis on a Mission: Breaking the Cycle of Poverty explores the barriers and obstacles that families face, that exist within our education system and workforce, as well as opportunities for families like the ones we met, to break the cycle.

Georgina said, "Every day I think about it, getting a new job, making more money."

Alicia says,"I want a good career for me and my kids."

Bonnie told WREG, "I want to finish my education. I want to help women who've been kicked in the gut and think they have no place to go."

"As long as people have hope and opportunity, then the sky is the limit for them and the city they live in," says Henderson.

A city that wouldn't be completely void of poverty, but certainly a better place to call home.

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