By Shannon Baker, BCM/D National Correspondent
BALTIMORE—It’s an economic reality. The poor are becoming poorer.
As the economy continues to spiral out of control, those with sixth grade educational levels are suddenly losing their entry-level service jobs to high school and college graduates. And without a fair chance to work, the poverty-stricken are left to roam the streets in a survival mode that often includes drugs, crime and despair.
Nestled in a row home in what he calls the “poorest neighborhood in Maryland” in McElderry Park, Bill Simpson’s office is surrounded by this distress.
Within just a 0.33-mile radius of his office, 846 households live on less than $15,000 a year—30 percent below the U.S. poverty level for a family of four. The number triples to 2,559 households when extended to a 0.66-mile radius.
“Twenty-four percent of our folks live on less than $10,000 annually. In any given month, about 60 percent are unemployed. Our high school drop-out rate is over 65 percent, and our teen pregnancy rate exceeds 80 percent,” shares Simpson, who serves as executive director of Open Door Community Development Corporation.
“Business as usual won’t get it done here.”
For Simpson, who moved his office to this location in the summer of 2008, it is worth the hour-long commute through 36 traffic lights to simply be a presence that “shows up” and seeks to make a difference in the hurting community.
That community is comprised of four lower East Baltimore neighborhoods: Baltimore-Linwood, Ellwood Park/Monument, McElderry Park and Patterson Place.
It is a place that Simpson feels is “quarantined” from the rest of the city, because of its overwhelming needs. But it is also a place where he knows that through Christ much can be accomplished.
“Emphasizing the redemptive principles of renewal, restoration, and reconciliation, we believe it’s wrong for 140,000 Baltimoreans to live in poverty in the nation’s most affluent state,” Simpson shares. “We are strong advocates for addressing the generational poverty that devalues life, immobilizes families and communities, and feeds a cycle of failure and futility.”
He explained that Open Door’s mission is three-fold: “(1) to be a source of hope and encouragement for people who need a new start; (2) to be a community hub that links folks to positive and constructive activities; and (3) to be a safe haven where God’s heart for hurting people and struggling families is made real every day.”
Simpson shares that Open Door’s efforts include adult learning, workforce development, life skills and soft skills training, computer literacy, family wraparound services, and information and referral.
“We also place a strong emphasis on emergency compassion outreach and strategic community organizing,” he adds. “In the final analysis, we’re convinced that if you help parents and adults with their education, employment, housing, and other ‘felt need’ issues, you really are helping the whole family and the larger community.”
That recently became a reality when Open Door assisted a 45-year-old man finding a full-time job for the first time in his life.
“We helped him develop a resume, strengthened his soft skills [appearance habits, ability to fill out forms, communication and motivation skills], and practiced interviewing with him,” Simpson shares. “It felt really good to know that we helped him get meaningful employment.”
Simpson notes that in spite of the great challenges, the people Open Door serves are remarkably proud, resilient, determined, and optimistic.
“Most believe that life can be better for their families. Nearly all just need a helping hand from someone who cares,” he shares.
Simpson says that because the need in the community is so great, Open Door staff members ask that interested parties meet face-to-face with them so as to better understanding their life circumstances.
“Our goal is to not only provide short-term emergency relief, but to also form relationships that can help lead to larger life solutions for those in need,” he says, explaining that Open Door’s ministry is a “long-term proposition.”
It is necessary to build trust in the community and that takes time.
“Trust becomes a real commodity,” he affirms, noting that his goal is for Open Door to be that place to turn to if people needed food for the day or simply needed somebody to talk to them.
“We may not be fully resourced, but they can see us work to help them,” Simpson shares.
To that end, Open Door works collaboratively with schools, civic groups, businesses, foundations, government agencies, congregations, and other nonprofits to identify resources, build community capacity, and coordinate solution-focused holistic responses to community needs.
As part of their ongoing mission to offer compassion and encouragement to hurting people, Open Door provides limited “emergency” food, clothing, and financial assistance to families in crisis.
Like other nonprofits, Open Door is only made possible through the generous donations of organizations and individuals.
“It is only through the donations of food, clothing, and financial support from our many friends and partners that we are able to provide emergency assistance. Because we greatly appreciate their generosity, we make every attempt to be good stewards of our emergency relief resources,” Simpson says.
“Never underestimate your influence with others— many of our current individual and congregational donors first became interested in supporting Open Door because someone encouraged them to get involved.”