The Ladder

Posted on Sep 17, 2015 in Events + Fundraisers, Letters from the Director

Poverty in the United States of America is an interesting topic. The conversation almost always starts with “the richest nation in the world.” I’m not certain this is still true, but since perception is reality for many, it really doesn’t matter if it’s completely accurate or not. We are certainly a wealthy nation, and only between 1 to 2 % of our population is homeless and lives on our streets. However, this percentage has been growing consider-ably faster in the last four decades compared to the previous 20 decades of our nation’s history – and people who are homeless are often far harder to count, so 2% might be a gross understatement but let’s go with about 2% are homeless in our country. A signifi-cantly higher percentage of people live underneath the poverty line – 16% according to the US census report that came out in 2012. That’s almost a 5th of our population.

This raises questions…

How many of the 16% are about to become homeless? How many could become homeless if something positive doesn’t hap-pen for them? Many individuals and families are barely holding on. Unless something changes for them, will they become part of next year’s or the following year’s statistic? If we are struggling as a nation to handle the current 2%, what would try-ing to handle 16% of our population look like?

What makes the difference between someone who is poor, but housed, as opposed to poor, but living on the streets? Why are there so many poor people, but still comparatively few homeless people? What becomes the tipping point?

We often hear from those who are living on our streets that this is their choice. Why would they make such a horrible choice? It will most likely shorten their life expectancy by as much as two decades and cost our country an average of $35,000/per person per year.

Some question the morals, expectations and values of a society as wealthy as ours that still allows people to live on our streets. Others debate the value of who we should help and who we shouldn’t. Who is just looking for a hand up, and who is perfectly content with a hand out? It’s a complicat-ed question. I’ve personally met people I’d put in one category on Tuesday, then changed my mind about them on Thursday and changed it back again the following Tuesday, because they had inner strength and resolve I didn’t recognize or respect at first glance.

I think of the potential for prosperity in America as a ladder. It’s a useful metaphor that has been used many times before.

We are still a meritocracy where people can rise or fall based on their skills, abilities and decisions. We believe this and question its validity simultaneously. Can people raise themselves up through economic classes? Yes, they can. We are presented with examples of it every day. I’m an example myself. Is it likely? No, it isn’t. Not for most of us. Stati-scally, most people end up in the financial demographic they were born into. Conversely, can people lose their wealth and privilege? Yes, they can. We get examples of this as well, but it seems to take a long time and multiple, repeated mistakes in judgment for this to happen. Even so, we sense these individuals rarely end up in a soup kitchen. Yes, we are a meritocracy, and people can move up and down the ladder of prosperity based on their abilities and decisions, but it feels as though the climb is getting harder with each generation and each decade. The converse seems true as well – that falling all the way down the ladder feels virtually impossible without really concerted self-destructive tendencies.

On a more optimistic note, we still live in a country where we don’t need to be on the highest rung of the ladder in order to have a decent, wonderful life.

If most people are like me, they feel relatively satisfied with their spot on that ladder. Sure, I’d like to do better, but I’m fairly content with where I’m at, especially when com-pared with where I started. I was born below the bottom rung. Today, I’m probably not even a third of the way up, but I live well, and I’m proud of my accomplishments. I hope most people reading this are satisfied with their spot on the ladder. Being happy and thankful with the blessings we each have is important and fundamental to self worth.

At the Torres Shelter we serve almost 800 people (including men, women and families with children) every year, and that num-ber is growing. Each guest comes to us from below the bottom rung of the ladder. Some have lived their entire lives without ever seeing the ladder except on TV. I doubt that many will leave us to become CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, but luckily that isn’t our goal. We just want to enable people to get back on the ladder, help them reach a rung where they can be fairly happy and satisfied with their spot. This is a challenging, but achievable goal. The reality is that many of our guests will still live under the poverty line when they leave us, but at least now they will be on the ladder and part of the 98% who live indoors.

Fortunately, we are good at achieving these goals despite many challenges. The stats we monitor and evaluate attest to our success. For instance, about every 30 hours, a guest leaves our shelter and moves into a place where they belong. Also, those who acquire income when they are with us see their monthly earnings go up by more than $1100 per month.

Far more important to me than statistics are the former guests I see in our community almost every day. I bump into them at their jobs or see them at the grocery store or just biking through my neighborhood. These individuals are now somewhere on the ladder. This makes me proud of them, my staff and an entire community of people and organizations that make our successes possible.

We’re currently in the midst of the annual Annie B Campaign, which is a wonderful opportunity for your gifts to be matched by additional dollars. North Valley Community Foundation (NVCF) has anonymous matching funds that will be added to your gift if you donate before Sept. 30. The match is usually between 7-12%. To simplify the math below I’ll dem-onstrate what this means using a median of 10%. In addition to the dollars that NVCF matches, we have also secured funds from among our donors that will match your gifts 100% up to $20,000. This is what will happen if you give a $50 gift to the Torres Shelter during the Annie B campaign;

We’ll get the $50.00 (NVCF doesn’t take any admin costs from your gifts, just adds the match!)

It will then get matched by one of our anonymous supporters for another $50 up to $20,000,

and then will also get matched by about $5 from NVCF up to $25,000.

And so a contribution of $50 will actually get us a total of about $105! Please consider a gift now to the Torres Shelter and help us continue to get hundreds of people per year back on the ladder.


Brad Montgomery