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Poor people upbeat in search for housing, poll finds

by Jordan Green

Lack of affordable housing is the overwhelming concern for residents of Weaver House, a homeless shelter run by Greensboro Urban Ministry.

That was the conclusion of a UNCG class that conducted a “poor people’s poll” at the shelter in April, according to a report released on June 15. Led by communications professor Spoma Jovanovic, the students interviewed 91 people, of whom four out of five were male and more than two-thirds were black.

“I think the overwhelming majority were optimistic that positive change was on the horizon,” Jovanovic said. “I think they have great faith in people – as the poll reveals, not so much in the government institutions. They seem pretty upbeat. I didn’t sense despair. A lot of credit is due to Urban Ministry.”

The poll found that poor people, like the majority of Greensboro residents, do not feel they can trust the local government to do the right thing. And following affordable housing, poor Greensboro residents said creating more and better jobs should be the city’s highest priority.

Jovanovic said the poll was motivated by a desire to inject the concerns of poor and homeless people into the city’s civic discourse.

“I had a conversation with one of our top political officials,” she recounted. “He said, ‘You know, Spoma, I’m not concerned about the top five percent; they’re pretty well off. I’m not concerned with the bottom five percent. It’s the ones in the middle. They’re the ones who are calling me on the phone.’ I was just stunned. What does that say for those who are most vulnerable in the community?”

Researchers, whose work was partially funded by UNCG’s Office of Leadership and Service-Learning and the university’s Office of Undergraduate Research, sought to highlight the concerns of homeless people, who are often overlooked by pollsters because they lack listed phone numbers and fixed addresses.

“In presenting the views, opinions and suggestions of the homeless, the UNCG research team hopes to expand the community conversation of important civic issues, and influence public policy making,” the report states. “This survey builds upon other community-based efforts to develop a stronger, more inclusive community where the voices of all its members are considered by city leaders and engaged citizens.”

The report’s authors suggest that as the Guilford County Task Force to End Chronic Homelessness – an initiative supported by area mayors and other leading officials – strives to meet its objective, policymakers might benefit from knowing what poor people discuss as their critical concerns.

The majority of poll participants – 60 percent – noted that discussions of religion were needed at shelters and other service providers for the poor and homeless, researchers found, while only 2 percent said they did not appreciate religion being a feature of services, with the balance holding neutral views.

“The implication for faith-based organization leaders are significant, as these organizations provide much needed social services and emergency assistance,” the report states. “The large volunteer staffs are also filling a need and desire for spiritual counseling and growth.”

Jovanovic said religious faith appears to be a major factor in sustaining poor and homeless people’s hope that their situation will improve.

“We asked that question about faith, almost expecting that they would find that religious thing to be just a requirement to get services,” she said. “I was happily surprised to hear how much they appreciated and wanted that. Maybe they had a deep abiding faith. Maybe the notion of community, they’ve adopted and honed that beyond those of us with more individualistic outlooks.”

Comparing their own findings with those in a recent social capital survey for Greensboro, the authors concluded that homeless residents volunteer at a rate only slightly less than the population as a whole. Fifty-seven percent of residents at the shelter said they had volunteered at least once in the past 30 days, compared to 61 percent of the general population. In contrast, few homeless residents participated in free special events such as street festivals and parades.

The study also found that homeless people are closely engaged with the 2008 presidential election, and strongly favor Democratic candidates. More than half said they supported New York Senator Hillary Clinton, while 18 percent supported former North Carolina Senator John Edwards and 12 percent said they would choose Illinois Senator Barack Obama. The top Republican candidates, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney, together attracted only 5 percent support from homeless respondents.

“Trust is also a topic of concern for the homeless and poor who note that while many working people treat them kindly, there remains a large portion of people who turn away, ignore, or disparage the homeless,” researchers found. “For these people, disgust, not compassion, is evoked and communicated.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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