Educator quarterbacking poverty fight
By STEVEN MAYER, Californian staff writer e-mail: email@example.com Wednesday December 25, 2002, 10:01:00 PM
It's the kind of money that disappears between sofa cushions or is swallowed up by coin-operated video games and gumball machines.
One quarter a day.
It may seem a pittance, but it's enough, says Russell Travis, to wipe out homelessness in Kern County. And if it works here, it can work anywhere.
"If one-quarter of the people in Kern County give one quarter a day," says Travis, "it would end homelessness in our communities."
Travis makes you want to believe him. The writer, longtime Cal State Bakersfield sociology professor and entrepreneur has a proven track record for turning sometimes weird and wild ideas into highly successful ventures -- from sales of T-shirts with funny messages to novelty "pieramids" made from wood salvaged from Central Coast piers destroyed in past storms.
But this project is unlike any of his other ideas, Travis says. It's touched him in a life-changing way.
Travis is so serious about turning his concept into concrete reality, he's started a not-for-profit organization called Homeless Quarters, launched a Web site, designed a logo, created a coin bank and schlepped all over Bakersfield asking businesses to get behind him in the effort.
"I'm not a bleeding heart," Travis says. "But the gap between what working people are paid and the cost of housing keeps rising." That gap makes it impossible for many families and individuals to find a stable residence.
So far, eight area businesses have agreed to display one or more of the clear-plastic coin banks. They include Airport Gift Shop, 24th Street Cafe, El Tejon Drug, Longs Pharmacy in Rosedale, Guarantee Shoe Center, Young's Marketplace, Russo's Books at The Marketplace and Luigi's Restaurant.
"How do you say no?" said Mike Russo, the owner of Russo's Books. "It's a good cause and a good person behind it."
Most of the businesses Travis visits say yes, but local managers of stores with a corporate structure often do not have the authority to place a coin bank in their store without first getting an OK from the corporate office.
Besides, people naturally have what Travis views as a "healthy skepticism." They want to know how the money will be used and who will benefit. And that's a good thing, he says.
"A portion of the proceeds is targeted toward providing first- and last-months rent for those many families who could otherwise afford to move into (modest) living quarters, but who simply lack the initial first and last months rent enabling them to do so," Travis said. "Many of these individuals have two or more low-paying jobs that do not lend themselves readily to an accumulation of the $1,000 or more move-in costs."
Travis is aiming for long-term solutions for families -- he calls them the "near-homeless" -- trapped in transient motels and sub-par rentals that often cost as much as a modest apartment but don't require a first- and last-month payment. Homeless Quarters is not focusing on providing for the day-to-day survival of people who are already on the street, he says. Others already do that.
It's not going to be easy. Travis knows what he's up against, including prevalent stereotypes equating homelessness and poverty to laziness.
Take, for instance, the initial attitude of Mark Huggs, the owner of 24th Street Cafe.
"Is this for the people who don't work?" Huggs said while hustling behind his lunch counter.
Huggs didn't hide his disdain for those who don't make any attempt to better themselves. But, after learning that the effort was designed to help the working poor, he lightened up, saying he supported the effort to help.
Travis says Homeless Quarters is as much an educational process as it is a grass-roots effort to change social patterns in communities across America. If it works in Kern County, he wants to make it happen nationwide. But he holds no illusions.
"I have discovered over the years that, generally speaking, compassion follows comprehension," he said. "For far too many, however, the stereotypes still hold sway."
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