Finding the means to make life better

Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Latoshia Reed moved to Cape Girardeau from Charleston, Mo., nine years ago and spent three years looking for affordable housing while she lived with her parents.

"I couldn't believe there were no housing projects or anything here," Reed said. "I thought, where do people on welfare live? How do they live?"

Eventually, the 30-year-old found housing subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and a job at Southeast Missouri Hospital. But upon getting pregnant with her third child, she lost her job and turned to welfare.

"I didn't know what to do," Reed said. "That really hurt, because I was trying to get on my feet and got knocked down again. A lot of people here would like to do better, but getting that chance isn't easy."

Reed found her chance and took it. Through the state's welfare-to-work program, she now works in the Family Support Division of the local Department of Social Services office. She has also been accepted by Habitat for Humanity, and construction began on her new home last week.

The challenges people such as Reed face -- family issues like poverty, affordable housing, parenting skills -- were ranked No. 4 in a recent assessment of community concerns conducted by the Cape Area Community Assessment Partnership.

The partnership was formed by the United Way of Southeast Missouri and the Cape Girardeau Community Caring Council to assess and prioritize the area's needs and create an action plan to address them.

Nancy Jernigan, director of the United Way, said Cape Girardeau County and Scott City -- the two areas focused on in the community assessment -- have lots of resources and agencies directed at improving family issues.

"I'm not sure the way we've been trying to help has been the most effective way. It's been a scattered approach," Jernigan said. "We're not planning to add new programs but improve and coordinate the ones we currently have."

Jernigan and others involved in improving family issues say one of the main problems in Southeast Missouri is lack of awareness.

"It's kind of a hidden problem. A lot of people are embarrassed," said Laura Baugh, a case manager with First Call for Help in Cape Girardeau. "They feel bad about reaching out."

First Call is a help hotline that coordinates available resources for those in need. Since opening in 1999, more than 11,500 calls have come through the organization asking for assistance with everything from parenting classes to food and clothing.

But there's one major problem Baugh and First Call program coordinator Denise Wimp say they can offer little assistance with -- housing.

First Call for Help averaged nine phone calls per week in 2003 from people asking for assistance paying rent or finding a place to live. For 74 percent of those calls -- 375 out of 509 -- no resources were available.

First Call also took 67 phone calls from homeless families last year. The needs of 30 of those callers were not met because of a lack of resources.

In some cases, that happened not because money wasn't available but because the applicant didn't meet certain qualifications, such as age or income.

"We need less criteria and more access," said Tom Davisson, executive director of Community Caring Council in Cape Girardeau.

Stigmas and a lack of community awareness have left programs such as the Cape Girardeau Parents as Teachers wanting participants.

Cape Girardeau's Parents as Teachers currently has 270 families enrolled, while neighboring Jackson has around 540 families in its program.

Deena Ring, supervisor for the Cape Girardeau program, said some people think only low-income or special needs children can participate in Parents as Teachers, which is untrue.

"Even if you're involved in another program, you can still participate," Ring said. "We have room for a lot more families."

Getting families to take advantage of such programs is one job the new community partnership hopes to tackle.

With the prioritization part of the partnership's assessment complete, the participants have been broken down into committees to study the top four issues. By June, those committees hope to have developed action plans and a system for measuring progress with each of the four issues.

The partnership's community assessments include a variety of data, some of which show promising trends among the four family issues.

Between 2000 and 2003, the unemployment rate dropped in both Cape Girardeau County and Scott City. The state's welfare reform program, which was implemented in the early 1990s, also has had an impact. According to the Missouri Department of Social Services, the number of individuals receiving temporary assistance in Cape Girardeau County dropped from 2,016 in January 1993 to 1,519 in January 2004, a decrease of 24.7 percent.

But the outlook for other cost-of-living issues is not as bright. Both Cape Girardeau and Scott City have a higher percentage of people living in poverty than the state average. Census data estimates that more than 2,100 people in Cape Girardeau are homeless. Jernigan says most are unseen, sleeping on other people's couches or living in motels.

Cape Girardeau County and Scott City's juvenile law violation referrals both exceed the state average. More than 1,100 reports of child abuse or neglect and 819 reports of domestic violence were made in Cape Girardeau and Scott counties in 2001, says the community assessment.

All of those issues are linked, said Mary Gosche with University of Missouri Outreach and Extension.

"It all comes back to poverty," Gosche said. "That's the key. Transportation, housing and money influence how parents take care of their children."

As the human development specialist at the extension service in Jackson, Gosche works with families in need of assistance. She says Southeast Missouri has abundant resources and services, but many of those aren't being accessed by the people who need it most.

"There will always be unmet needs because some people are too proud to ask for help," Gosche said.

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