The Poor Side of Town

Memphis is home to one of the nation's most impoverished zip codes. So what are we doing about it?

Photographs By Brad Jones


Moving to Foote Homes housing projects was a step up for Sylvester Brown. In the small but gleaming apartment where he sits on a summer afternoon with his wife, Kitty, and five daughters, he says he moved here in 2000 after losing his job and his home. "We qualified to live here through Memphis Housing Authority," says Brown, now a custodial assistant earning $11.15 an hour with the city school system. "We've been very pleased."

As the air-conditioner hums and a glimmer of sunlight strikes the faces of Browns' pretty teenagers, he praises the friendliness of other tenants and how they help each other out. Sure, bad things happen in the area. Like drug dealing and prostitution. Kitty describes seeing "buck-naked" women at the corner of Fourth and Vance. Far worse, her older daughters saw men speeding down Vance after firing shots toward the complex. "I was scared," admits 16-year-old LaQuita.

Brown doesn't sugarcoat crime, but he adds, "Police are responsive. And the main thing is to keep your own nose clean."

Meanwhile, at King of Discount grocery, not far from Brown's home, the store owner has a somewhat different take on the neighborhood. Preferring to identify himself only as Omar, the New York transplant bought the grocery and moved to Memphis in 2004. Four months and $4 million later, he says, "I realized it wasn't a good move. I trusted people in the area to help me fix up the place. Those same people stole from me. Now I don't give them a chance." He keeps his eyes trained and a gun handy. Summing up area residents, and tossing in some recommendations for good measure, Omar says: "People around here are just waiting for their government check. When it's all gone by the middle of the month, they're looking for cash. We need to get weapons off the streets, get people jobs, get rid of the mayor. That's for starters."

Drugs, crime, joblessness. They're just a few of the problems that plague this area -- more specifically Zip code 38126 -- the poorest in Memphis and one of the poorest in the nation, based on the 2000 census. Bounded roughly by Union on the north, McLemore on the south, Second on the west, and Dudley on the east, and home to such landmarks as FedExForum and LeMoyne-Owen College, the area lays claim to various sad statistics, among them: Nearly half the residents are high-school dropouts, the unemployment rate is 14.5 percent, and only 4 percent of residents own their homes.

Perhaps what cripples residents most is the brutal cycle of drug and alcohol abuse, teen pregnancies, and dependence on welfare and public housing. But not everyone gets stuck in that trap. Here, we introduce you to individuals who are working their way out of poverty's grip and some neighborhood advocates who offer a hand up.

"Quick money on the streets . . ."

His father was a pimp, his mother a prostitute. Each time one of his parents landed in jail, he was shuffled off to another family member. "It was usually to the projects, with the rats and roaches," says 31-year-old Otis Johnson, who came to Memphis from Los Angeles at age 8 when his mother fled from his father. While she was locked up for five years for theft and gang-related activity, Johnson himself found trouble on every corner. In and out of school and moving to different foster homes, he hung with dope sellers and gang members. "I was always smart in school," says Johnson, who eventually received his GED, "and I made the basketball team at Shelby State [now Southwest Community College]. But I dropped out for quick money on the streets. Got caught in 1999 selling dope and they gave me probation."

For a while Johnson played it safe. "I was still into drugs but I had a job. Then they laid me off. I violated probation in 2004 and went to jail. Eleven months. That really turned the light on for me."

Once out of prison, the husband and father of six kids swore to lay off the dope-selling and straighten up his life. He started coaching a kids' football team. But finding a job was another story. A friend told him about Advance Memphis, a nonprofit that helps adults develop skills. "I figured it would involve some kind of school and I didn't wanna go to no school," says Johnson. "But I tell you, they helped me a lot."

Through Advance Memphis, he found a job at Cornerstone Manufacturing, which builds conveyors, and he and his wife, a catering assistant, are taking Advance Memphis' money management classes. Though funds are still tight, they're aiming to save enough to buy a house in six months. "I want a better environment for my kids," says Johnson. "Better than I had."

His co-worker Mandez Ward wishes he'd had a better environment. His mother quit working when he was 13 and "I was hungry all the time," says the serious, soft-spoken welder. "I knew early in life that school wasn't for me and I skipped regularly. I never had anybody to look up to and missed a lot of opportunities." He learned the skill of welding and since May 2006 has worked for Cornerstone Manufacturing. "I'm basically on my own at the age of 19. I gotta pay my rent, insurance, things some people just take for granted."


"A heart for the city . . ."

These men are a few Steve Nash hoped to assist when he founded Advance Memphis seven years ago at 963 Crump Boulevard. The 42-year-old graduate of White Station High and the University of Memphis had grown up volunteering for Urban Young Life and other charitable organizations. After an unfulfilling career in sales and while listening to mission leaders at his church, Second Presbyterian, "I began to develop a heart for the city," says Nash, "and to understand the words of Jeremiah 22:16, 'He defends the cause of the poor and the needy . . . .'"

Targeted specifically for people in 38126, especially serving adults in the Cleaborn and Foote Homes housing projects, Advance Memphis tries to help men and women become economically self-sufficient. "We're not a relief agency, though there's absolutely a place for relief," says Nash. "But we help them develop skills to participate in the marketplace."

LaTonya Farmer found a new career through Advance Memphis. The 35-year-old single mother was raised in Cleaborn Homes, on Lauderdale near Vance, by her grandmother in an apartment filled with aunts, uncles, and siblings. "It was a crowded situation and [a relative] took advantage of me," she says. "I was torn, messed up." Farmer sought refuge in sex with older men -- "my way of getting attention." That attention led to five children, whose ages now range from 8 to 20.

After graduating from Booker T. Washing-ton High, Farmer worked for a temporary agency, but a shoplifting charge held her back from a permanent position. She'd "sort of hit rock bottom" a few years ago, when she went to the Martin Luther King Center at Cleaborn Homes, where "a bunch of politicians were talking big, saying they were gonna give us this and that, put the [school] kids in uniform," Farmer recalls. "I spoke up and told them, 'Instead of all this free stuff, why don't you bring jobs to the area?'"

That's when she met Steve Nash, who was handing out literature about Advance Memphis. Today she works for him as office administrator, making $11 an hour plus benefits. She and her kids live in a $435 a month rental house -- considerably higher rent than she'd pay in public housing -- and she hopes one day to buy a house.

Farmer, who also leads monthly community meetings for her employer, believes that individuals, not government, could do more to help themselves. "They could come here and get training. But some are lazy. They want their food stamps, they want their TennCare. I love the independence of having a job."

"The old Delvin is dead . . ."

On a July afternoon, inside a spanking-new brick-and-glass building at 430 Vance, the thump of basketballs and beep of video games blend with laughter and occasional raucous shouts. Welcome to Streets Ministry, founded in 1987 by Ken Bennett, 49, a Messick High and University of Memphis grad, who says, "God put upon my heart to do a ministry here."

"Here" means in the heart of 38126 across the street from Foote Homes housing project and within a few blocks of Vance Middle School. The spacious facility, three times the size of its original building, opened in June, luring youth with its three basketball courts, air hockey and pool tables, and a 14-station computer. After school, kids often come to the homework area to study and use the center's resources.

Before Bennett started his mission nearly 10 years ago, he talked with the principals of three neighborhood schools. They told him, "We need your help. Do what you can." Since then, he has earned the trust of many a teenager, including now-29-year-old Delvin Lane, high-school coordinator and director of ministries for Streets.

As a former Gangster Disciple who says he had 125 gang members under his rule, Lane spent three years involved in drugs, robberies, and shoot-outs, and watched a friend die in his arms. At the same time he stressed the tenets of gang membership that read like a Boy Scout manual: "love, life, knowledge, wisdom, loyalty, education, literacy." Says Lane, "I took busloads of guys to the Martin Luther King Center to take the GED test, get jobs, do something positive."

Yet he knew he was living a lie: "We were really about power and hurting people," he admits. He realized he'd dodged a lot of bullets, literally and otherwise. "I was often under investigation, got picked up for stuff but never charged with anything. People would say, 'Are you snitchin' or something?' No, but I always walked scot-free. I wondered why I was the one not getting shot, not landing in jail."

A churchgoing boy, Lane says he was raised in a "decent family with a good moral foundation but my life didn't show it. Then I took Christ into my life and I changed dramatically." Lucky for him, the gang recognized that change when he severed gang ties in May 1999. "The only way to leave a gang is to die," he explains. "But the gang understands Second Corinthians 5:15, 'Therefore if any man or woman be in Christ, he or she is a new creature . . .' So they looked at me and said, 'The old Delvin is dead.'"

For awhile, his former security guard dogged Lane's movements. "He's 6'5", 400 pounds, every tooth in his mouth gold," says Lane. Everywhere the guard went his security squad followed, each one packing a 9-millimeter. "Finally the guy cornered me and said, 'Go on and do what you're doing. But don't forget about us. Come back and show us how to get right with God too.'"

While gang lords were following Lane, so was Bennett. He'd known Lane since the young man was 11 years old and selling crack cocaine on the streets. He heard Lane had changed and wanted to see for himself. What he saw was a 21-year-old with two kids who "didn't want to serve the devil anymore." Observing Lane's potential, Bennett put him on his staff.

"A concept of dollars and cents . . ."

Today Lane and Bennett battle the same cycle of misery that has hounded the poor for decades. "It starts with how the neighborhood is set up," claims Lane. "My mother raised me and my brother in Cleaborn Homes to the best of her ability. But if she married, they'd jack the rent up to $500 to $700 a month. On her own she pays $45 a month."

It's financially beneficial to stay single, agrees Bennett, because Memphis Housing Authority considers both incomes when setting the rent. "You drive around the area and you see plenty of males, they're just not married," he says. "The kids grow up learning how to beat the system. They don't see it as doing something wrong. It's just survival."

He sees the same philosophy when it comes to work. "You walk through the community early in the morning and the ladies are going out to pick up cans to sell, or to go get assistance. They're workers, but they work within the context of what they know. And if they look at a minimum wage job [$5.15 an hour], they figure, why bother? They can get government assistance and go hustle some cash job on the side and have more disposable income than if they work 40 hours a week."

So how does he help kids move out of that cycle? "I think the younger ones need to start thinking more realistically," responds Bennett. "You ask a high-school kid what he'll do in life and he says, 'I'll be rich,' but he doesn't know how. Our kids don't have a concept of dollars and cents because what they see is paper money -- food stamps, assistance. They don't grow up in a household with a budget. They don't know what it takes to get there."

Adds Lane: "Sometimes the parents are working two or three jobs. When they get paid, they'd rather go out and buy their kids a $100 pair of tennis shoes so it looks like they've got something. Then they call us saying they need help paying their bills."

At Streets Ministry, youth can participate in a finance class where they develop a budget. "Of course they're making $35 and spending $95," smiles Bennett, "but it's a start. These kids can be something special. Their grammar may be horrific but their intelligence is off the charts. They just haven't learned to value education."

"They're counting on people like me . . ."

Courtenay White won't argue with Bennett. As executive director of St. Patrick Learning Center at Fourth and Linden, she runs an after-school program for children who live primarily in 38126. "We're helping kids here, especially with reading skills, but too often we're sending them home to families who didn't learn the basics themselves, not even phonics," says White. "You teach the child a word's correct pronunciation, then they go home where their parent says it totally wrong. And you don't dare say anything bad about the mom in front of that child." Instead, a few parents come to St. Patrick's Learning Center for language tutoring, or White will meet with them at their home. There, White often learns that children frequently have no quiet place to study.

"The parents never had such a place so they don't understand," says White. "So the kids need somewhere within walking distance of their school where they can go in and say, 'Can you help me?' They're counting on people like me or Ken Bennett or some of the churches to say, 'Okay, come on in. If we can't help we'll find someone who can.'"

The center also helps residents complete job applications. "Jobs are available in the city," says White. "But something as simple as filling out an application can be intimidating; many are now done online. You have to be skilled to know how to do that and you need access to a computer. We offer the training here."

But perhaps most urgent is helping teenage mothers become better parents. As White points out: "They're provided with prenatal care, cribs, Pampers, all kinds of stuff, but what do they do when they get home with the child? They don't have a clue."

"We'd have a different world . . ."

If Margaret Craddock could stop the cycle of poverty, here's what she do: Start over. Start with the parents before they have the babies, work with them before the mother conceives. When the mother's pregnant, get the father involved. Then, work with the babies in the crucial early years, from infanthood to 3 years. "If we could do that with every child, with every parent, we'd have a different world," says Craddock, executive director of MIFA (Metropolitan InterFaith Association), one of the city's oldest and largest social-services agencies.

MIFA offers a wide range of services, including a Teen Jobs program that includes classes in human sexuality and pregnancy prevention. Still, the babies keep coming. Experts could reel off any number of reasons: the media's glorification of sex, the lack of stigma attached to single-mother pregnancies, girls who want a baby's unconditional love. "It's certainly not lack of education or birth-control options," says MIFA staffer Caprice Snyder. Those options are available, but teens -- and adults -- don't always use them. "They may not have transportation to get to a doctor," says Snyder, "and it can also be scary to have a physical exam. So there they are with a boy after school, nobody's home, and they think, 'It will only be this one time . . . .'"

Whatever the behavior that traps people in poverty, positive relationships can bring about change. "For children," says Craddock, "that relationship is ideally with a parent or family member, but if that can't happen, it has to be someone the child can trust and depend on. We try to offer that through our volunteers, saving one person at a time."

Ericka Shells knows about relationships. Now on the staff of Emmanuel Episcopal Center near Cleaborn Homes, she has participated in the center's youth and community programs since she was 11 years old. "Father Hubbard is our father figure," she says, referring to Colenzo Hubbard, who came from Birmingham to run the center in 1989. "He reaches out to the kids," says Shells, now 27. "He got the programs started with a football game. And if you've got boys playing football you've got girls around watching. That's how I got to know him."

Today, as a youth leader, she develops her own relationships with the girls she counsels. About sex, she's straightforward, "because a lot of them look up to me and confide in me. And I think what I tell them is helping. I haven't seen any pregnancies in my group." Her experience at the center has sparked her desire to go back to college and earn a degree in counseling. She hopes to encourage more young women to move out of the neighborhood, as she has, and start fresh.

"A serious commitment . . ."

When Colenzo Hubbard came to Memphis to head the center, the former Alabama football player tackled a host of problems. "There's so much need here," he says. "Dropouts, pregnancy, criminal and gang activity -- kids who grow up here are at risk for all these. If something doesn't happen during the course of their life to alter it, it's pretty much inevitable that many will fall prey to these challenges. So we work with kids from a preventive standpoint."

Among his greatest disappointments are those who drop out of school or who commit crimes in their youth and live to regret it. "To see a young man incarcerated, or unable to get a job because of his criminal record, that hurts," says Hubbard. "What we try to do is start early with these kids, to create something so consistent, day after day, that they'll have something to look forward to. That's a serious commitment to make to a person. But we do it."

And the good news is, "the majority of our kids escape," he adds. "Right now, about 15 to 20 kids who came through our programs are in college. One that we sent to our boarding school [St. Andrews-Sewanee] is now a nurse at Methodist. Another graduated from Wellesley and is now with Lehman Brothers in New York's financial district."

In addition to its work with youth, Emmanuel Episcopal Center also hosts a weekly food distribution day. Fresh fruits, vegetables, and canned goods are provided by the local Food Bank to the center, where early each Wednesday people are lined up and waiting. Hubbard agrees with MIFA's Margaret Craddock that "the face of hunger is no longer emaciated; it's obesity" -- because calorie-laden foods are the cheapest -- and that nutrition education is as important as food distribution. Still, hunger nags the poor, especially toward the end of the month when people have used all their food stamps. "Say a family of four gets $200 a month in food stamps," says Hubbard. "They have to buy cleaning supplies and hygiene items from that too, so it's not a lot of money. These people would not be standing in line if they didn't need the food."

"Some of the finest people . . ."

Hunger, teen mothers, drugs, crime. Inspector Mark Collins has seen them all. A 24-year veteran of the Memphis Police Department, he patrolled the wards of 38126 in his early years on the force and still spends some time on the streets in what he calls "community building."

"We really serve as a support system for folks in this area," he explains. "They often don't have the wherewithal to call an attorney or an electrician or a doctor. Maybe their kid won't go to school or they need a ride to work and don't have bus money. They'll call us." He emphasizes too that "just because a person is poor doesn't mean he's going to turn into a criminal. Some of the finest people I've sat down at the table with live in this area."

And some of the worst take advantage of them. Among these are predatory lenders: "A person will come along and say, 'You need a new roof and we'll take care of it, just sign this.' What the victim has actually done is sign over the mortgage to their home." Laws against such practices have recently been strengthened, but Collins points out, "The best thing we can do is educate people about them."

While the area has a reputation for danger, Collins says, "It's not the worst in town." He adds that MPD's Blue Crush initiative has had an impact on robberies and burglaries in the 38126 wards, and a new "community-friendly" police station, scheduled to be built at Crump and East to replace Union Station (also called the West Precinct), will improve interaction between officers and residents.

He credits the city's department of Housing and Community Development for donating land for the new station -- and for other efforts as well. These include replacing the deteriorating LeMoyne Gardens with a mixed-income community known as College Park. Built with help from a federal Hope VI grant, the attractive, well-landscaped development at Walker and Neptune features both rental and home-ownership units, senior units, and a community center that holds a Boys & Girls Club, day care, police station, bank, and computer learning center.

With similar plans in the works for University Place, formerly Lamar Terrace, Collins believes the area can only improve. "When a community has a high concentration of people in public housing, it becomes a breeding ground for criminal activity," he says. "And the way the old public housing projects were built made them difficulty to patrol, which increased the likelihood of crime. College Park not only looks a lot better, we're seeing fewer problems in that area."

Although Foote and Cleaborn Homes have received some rehabbing in recent years, they still await the transformation made possible through Hope VI. HCD's Mairi Albertson says, "We very much want to revitalize these communities and are trying to identify funding strategies." Meanwhile, HCD offers several assistance programs to residents and works with local Code Enforcement in seeing that substandard homes are condemned; as of 2005, 81 properties are in the condemnation process and will eventually be demolished if not brought up to code.

"A new energy . . ."

Overall, Collins sees reason for hope where before he saw "just a blank stare." Without minimizing the inner city's problems, he says, "I think with HCD's projects and with the Bioworks [Research Park] planned for the medical center on Union, we're looking at a renaissance in this area."

Sondra Howell agrees. She directs New Pathways, a nonprofit that MIFA helped start two years ago. The group's Youth Civic Action Team tracks abandoned and neglected properties, many of which harbor drug activity and prostitution, and reports them to Code Enforcement, while involving the youth in civic improvements.

"When I first came," says Howell, "I saw very little hope or energy, just a sense of depression. But with organizations working together, there's a definite change." And with the Hope VI development and Bioworks creating a stir, she adds, "The stakeholders are becoming more informed and asking more questions. I don't know how all that will play out in the residents' favor, but I certainly feel a new energy."

For Sylvester Brown, who lives with his family at Foote Homes, energy and hope lie within. "Poverty is just a mindset," he says. "I like it here but I have bigger desires. I tell my daughters, 'This is not the ending for us. We can grow beyond this.'" 














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