Confronting Poverty With Empathy, Mutual Respect, and Dignity

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By Maddie Garrett

Countless individuals in Cincinnati are living under the threat of poverty every day. For the majority of residents living in our city, brief interactions with panhandlers on the sidewalk are the closest they get to this poverty. Those momentary interactions, however, merely scratch the surface of the poverty that exists.

There are countless non-profit organizations and churches trying to work together to assist these individuals and help them to escape this cycle, but often times it is difficult for people to navigate between services. Every person’s needs are different, and it is difficult to find services that effectively fit their needs. Usually, the default reaction of the middle class is to give money or material resources to these individuals. In reality, this is just side-stepping the issue. The true key to reversing the cycle of poverty in our city lies in relationships built on empathy, dignity, and above all, mutual respect. The act of understanding the unique set of circumstances each person in need faces helps to enable individuals who are trying to help better utilize existing resources in our city.

According to U.S. Census data and the Ohio Development Agency’s Ohio Poverty Report in 2015, 30.9% of people living in Cincinnati live below the poverty line. To put that number into perspective, that’s over 86,000 individuals living beneath the poverty line. On average, each is living on less than $12,060 a year based on the Federal Poverty Level. What is perhaps most concerning is that the number of individuals living below the poverty line in Cincinnati is almost twice the national average. Even though there are countless services dedicated to helping people in need, many of these individuals do not know how to take advantage of them.

Enter Kevin Rosebrook, Vice President of Homeless Services at Cincinnati’s City Gospel Mission. City Gospel Mission is a nonprofit organization dedicated to engaging, equipping, and empowering those in need in our city by providing them with the support and resources they need to “achieve long-term life transformation and self-sufficiency.” They do this by providing countless resources including short-term and long-term shelter, meal services, recovery programs, youth afterschool reading programs, tutoring, mentorship programs, and much more.

In his current position, Rosebrook believes that in order to create a shift towards healing the cycle of poverty in our city, we must begin by creating relationships built on respect and dignity with individuals who are struggling. Rosebrook explains that often, when the middle class sees the struggle of those in need, they attempt to fill the gap with material and monetary support. This includes anything from giving money to a panhandler on the sidewalk to filling the material need of a car. The middle class believes that change will occur when these material needs are met. Rosebrook, however, believes that this is only a band aid on a much larger issue.

City Gospel Mission highlights the story of Tammy Crabtree and her family of four. They are a perfect example of a family struggling to live their lives under the constant threat of poverty. Tammy is a hardworking single mother living in a small Ohio town. She walks ten miles to and from work daily in order to provide for her four boys.  She does not have a working car or any way to heat her home; nonetheless, she is still overcoming the odds and working hard to support her family. Contrary to what you would believe, Tammy’s long hours of hard work are still not enough to keep her family out of poverty. Rosebrook explains that many believe that working hard will lead to success and happiness. He says that in reality, there are many more factors that figure into this equation. Many will try to fix Tammy’s situation by purchasing a car for her or installing a heater into her home, but Rosebrook believes the issues lie deeper than material resources.

Instead of giving physical resources, Rosebrook believes that in order to create lasting change in Tammy’s life and in the lives of those in need, we must step into their lives and begin to understand the situations they are in. Once we have a better understanding of what their unique situations are, then we can better utilize existing resources to help them. For example, when stepping into Tammy’s life, Rosebrook found that the main factor in long-term success for her was to have relationships built on mutual respect and dignity. Often, Tammy was treated poorly by her neighbors because her clothes and appearance often did not conform to the norms or standards in her town. Consequently, she was often called names and treated poorly by her neighbors. Tammy said, “All I want is to be happy, but I can’t because of the way people treat me.” This is often the case for the majority of those in poverty.

Chico Lockhart is another individual who truly embraces the concept of forming relationships to create lasting change. Lockhart is an outreach worker for Downtown Cincinnati Inc. He has been working for the city for the past ten years, specifically focusing his efforts on forming relationships with the homeless and panhandlers on the streets of downtown Cincinnati. The majority of his time is spent walking around Cincinnati and talking with individuals in poverty. He gets to know these people, learns their stories, and forms personal relationships and friendships with them. He believes that these relationships are the key to pulling them out of the cycle of poverty and into a life where they can thrive. Once these relationships are formed, Lockhart is better able to connect them with the multitude of support programs in Cincinnati that best fit their individual needs. He is an expert at knowing how to utilize all of the support programs available in our city for getting people out of poverty.

When asked about his view on panhandling, Lockhart stated, “In Cincinnati, you shouldn’t be hungry at all.” He also said that he “would not suggest [that]people give them [panhandlers]money.” He says that the real trouble lies in the great amount of money you can make as a panhandler. “If they still make $100-200 in a day, what makes them want to come to us?” Lockhart encourages individuals to “actually talk to the person” who is asking for money. After forming a relationship with the person, you can effectively connect them with resources and services that best fit their needs. In the long run, this is far better than giving them a few dollars or some spare change.

As expected, empathy is a key factor in many of these relationships. Having an understanding of the difference between sympathy and empathy is crucial here. Sympathy is simply defined as having “sorrow or pity for another,” whereas empathy is so much more. Empathy is “the understanding and sharing of the emotions and experiences of another person.” Simply stated, sympathy is feeling sorry for someone, but empathy is being able to relate to someone’s experience because you have been through something similar.  Having empathy for another person increases your connection to them because you are able to relate to them. This, in turn, increases your ability to utilize their available resources and help them in a more meaningful way.

Brene Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She has studied empathy extensively throughout her career. In her video, “Brene Brown on Empathy,” she says, “Rarely can a response make something better. What makes it better is the connection.” City Gospel Mission utilizes their soup kitchen to achieve just this. Instead of having volunteers serve food, they are encouraged to sit at the table and eat with the homeless. Rosebrook explains that the simple act of eating together lets volunteers interact on a personal level with the people they are serving. In sharing a meal with those who are in need, volunteers are forced to face their own personal brokenness in order to form connections with the people sitting around them. Once these barriers are broken down, conversation flows much easier, and volunteers begin to have a deeper understanding of the lives of those sitting across from them. This greatly increases their empathy. It is then easier for them to take the perspective of the homeless man sitting across the table from them and connect with this person on a deeper level.  Taking the time to have a conversation and form this relationship gives volunteers a deeper understanding of the life of an individual in poverty.

Rosebrook explains that “as an outsider, we must build relationships of respect and understanding before offering help.” City Gospel Mission has crafted an environment in which these relationships of dignity and respect can be formed, in hopes of creating lasting change in the lives of people in need. They also provide individuals with the resources needed to overcome poverty in their lives. They have found a way to effectively utilize their resources to create an environment of maximum impact and change.

The two most critical aspects in the relationships formed with those in need are the core values of dignity and mutual respect. For example, imagine the relationship between a student and a teacher. If the student and teacher have a mutual respect for one another, this can greatly increase the student’s desire to learn and their receptivity to the acquisition of new material. On the other hand, if the student believes that the teacher does not have respect for them, then the student is much less likely to have the desire to learn. In many cases, if mutual respect is present in the relationship between student and teacher, the student will do better in the class. The opposite is also true: A lack of mutual respect often leads to students receiving lower grades. Dr. James Cormer, the Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine’s Child Study Center, explains that “no significant learning occurs without significant relationships.” The same principle applies to relationships with individuals in poverty. If mutual respect is achieved, then they are often more receptive to receiving assistance.

It’s clear that in order to fight poverty in our city and create lasting change, we must support and engage with organizations that form lasting relationships with individuals stuck in poverty.  These relationships are formed through empathy, mutual respect, and dignity. By deeply understanding the unique set of circumstances each individual in need faces, one is better equipped to utilize all of the existing resources available in our city. Lockhart puts it best when he says, “The real battle isn’t in getting services … it’s convincing people to take advantage of them.” The first step, then, in creating lasting change in our city is the relationships we build with individuals in need.

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