Families in poverty strive to move forward

2014-06-08T00:00:00Z 2014-06-13T16:44:14Z Families in poverty strive to move forwardCarmen McCollum carmen.mccollum@nwi.com, (219) 662-5337 nwitimes.com

Fifty years after President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty, the U.S. finds itself still grappling with homelessness, mental illness, joblessness, urban blight and other persistent issues connected with being impoverished, unemployed, uneducated or otherwise unable to find opportunity. 

Welfare critics and reformers alike clamor for better ways to deal with the destitute, jobless and chronically underemployed who can't recoup mounting losses. Many agree current poverty "is not your grandmother's poverty, anymore," in the words of Jodie Levin-Epstein, director of the Center for Law and Social Policy.

Today, 66 percent of families with children that fall below the federal poverty level have at least one member who works -- 40 percent have a family member with a full-time job; 26 percent have at least one member who works part time.

On the other hand, 15 percent of Americans between ages 16 and 24 are neither in school nor working, according to a recent Opportunity Nation coalition study. The local working poor and idle youth present challenges if Northwest Indiana and Chicago's south suburbs are to thrive and compete globally for a sound economic future.

Today, The Times presents a comprehensive look at neighbors in need in a special section assessing the problems for them and society -- and explores possible solutions. The stories begin below, introducing three area families, how they are coping with financial obstacles -- and striving to overcome them.

The Fornett family

Onteria Fornett, of Hammond, has figured out how to make a way out of no way.

The 49-year-old mother of four sons, three of whom are still in school, is rearing her family on less than $1,000 a month in Social Security disability benefits. She keeps them active and involved in church and school, with good grades, aimed at getting into college.

Fornett has asthma, bronchitis and thyroid problems. She had back surgery in June 2009 and a month later, after suffering severe chest pains, had emergency open-heart surgery. Fornett also cares for her ailing mother, who lives in Chicago, a city she left to get away from the crime.

Fornett has a routine she follows religiously, getting up at 5 a.m. every weekday and going to bed around 7 p.m. She gets her boys up a half-hour later, with breakfast on the table. She said it's not unusual to smell the stink of marijuana in the hallways of her apartment building.

"I've reported it," she said, referring to the smoke. "I don't give any names. I don't know any names. They come out, and they don't catch anybody. The police say they can't do anything about it unless they catch them."

Fornett has taught her sons how to cook. They each have chores to do in the house. She said they come in each day and do their homework. On Fridays, her Hammond High School sophomore does the laundry, and Fornett will iron. She said the twins rotate cleaning the kitchen, including the dishes, and sweeping and mopping the floor.

"I'm teaching them how to be men," she said. "Everything is 50/50 in a relationship. They need to know how to pull their own weight."

Fornett, who got divorced last year, said her ex-husband isn't very involved in her children's lives. But her goal is to keep them busy, and she does that. They all have after-school activities. The twins swim; her sophomore is in ROTC. They go to the library, play basketball and participate in summer activities. She picks them up and takes them everywhere. Fornett also is involved at school and helps in the classroom with other parents.

She said they'll have an opportunity to participate in a program at Purdue University Calumet this year.

"There are dozens of things that I can take my kids to that are free," Fornett said.

She schedules doctors appointments for herself and her mother around the boys' schedule.

Fornett said she gets food stamps and that helps, and she makes healthy meals for her children. She said it's hard managing her household on the amount of money she receives per month. She said each boy gets $4 per month from Social Security, and she saves that and buys school uniforms and a couple pair of shoes. She said she tries to get as much as possible on sale.

"I hear other parents talking about how they don't have any money, but you see them getting their hair done, nails done or buying $200 gym shoes," Fornett said. "My kids may want $200 gym shoes, but they know I can't afford that. I struggle and it's hard, but I can do it."

The Jackson family

About eight years ago, Eric and Joy Jackson's daughter, Jade, was just a little girl when she unwittingly witnessed a drive-by shooting. The family lived in Chicago then.

On the way home, she and her friend saw a teenage boy run past them who dropped a gun in the road. They were young and didn't know what was going on. A car whizzed past them; a few feet down the block, they saw the body of a young man lying in the road.

Joy Jackson said her mother told them, "enough is enough." The family moved within a week, temporarily renting a house from a relative in a neighboring suburb before moving to Lansing a few years ago.

"We had some money saved but that kind of depleted us, because we did it very fast and invested money that we didn't have," she said. "We hadn't planned for being in a house then. That was kind of the beginning of our downward spiral."

Still, the couple was managing to keep food on the table and the bills paid. An adult set of twins are on their own. Jackson has always worked in security, juggling two jobs, while Joy has worked at a hospital the last five years.

When Jackson obtained a security job about two years ago with great pay and benefits, the couple believed they would be set for life.

"We thought my husband would be able to work one job, and we'd be able to really save some money and bank on our future," she said.

Jackson, who is diabetic, has neuropathy in his feet -- a condition involving nerve damage which often causing weakness, numbness and pain.

Jackson had been on the job a few months and was catching the train to work when he broke the bones in a foot. He didn't feel it because of the neuropathy.

Not noticing the damage, he continued to walk on the injured foot for several days, resulting in more fractures and joint dislocations. He now suffers from diabetic foot -- known as Charcot foot -- which involves pain and swelling.

Jackson said the doctor released him to work "light duty" but he wound up losing both his jobs and applying for Social Security disability. He recently was diagnosed with some heart issues, and his diabetes is not under control.

"I can't afford the medicine I need," he said. "I'm supposed to be taking five shots a day. I've had blood clots in my lungs and my legs. It's been rough."

In December, Joy Jackson was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and is on short-term disability at her job.

"As a wife, I just went into overdrive to see what i could do to benefit my family," she said. "I went to public aid and they told me I made $1 too much to get any food stamps. I applied for rental assistance, and they told me I didn't qualify for Section 8 or any other program." 

Almost all of Jackson's disability check, except for about $100, goes to rent. At one point, there also were problems with his health insurance, and the family has switched to Joy Jackson's health insurance. Many times, they can't afford medication.  

"If MS Lifelines hadn't taken over and started paying for my medication, I don't know what I would have done," Joy Jackson said.

Jackson said many times they don't have food and can't afford to buy it. She said she has learned about all the food pantries and food banks in the area, and regularly goes to them to get food.

The couple say it's been difficult living in poverty.

"I never knew that it would be this hard," Jackson said. "I never expected to be in this position at 43."

Joy Jackson, 45, said she is truly among the "working poor." She said she has a job but due to her illness is not able to go back full time and make more money, but she also doesn't qualify for any assistance, she said.

Tina's story

The fight to get out of poverty also means a quest to bring her children back together with her under one roof, said Tina, a South Haven mother of three.

Living at a Porter County women's shelter in early April, Tina, 36, said finding gainful employment -- after being laid off from a Portage job a year ago -- was goal No. 1.

But with several cars that have broken down in the past year, Tina said her personal bout with poverty has continued.

"It reminds me of the cycle of poverty that so many people go through," Tina said. "You're trying to get out, and it only takes one thing to go wrong, like a broken-down car, and you're all the way back to the beginning again."

In the first three weeks of April alone, Tina said she had to turn down four job offers because she possesses no reliable transportation.

Tina spoke to The Times on condition that only her first name be used, as she worries being identified could jeopardize her employment chances.

Gabriel's Horn, the South Haven shelter where she lived for most of April, had a van for transporting residents, but the van schedule didn't fit the work schedules of the jobs she was offered, Tina said.

It hasn't always been this way. Before she lost her last solid job a year ago, her family lived in a nice home in Valparaiso, and she had a reliable vehicle, she said.

But they lost that home to foreclosure when her job evaporated, and her children -- ages 12 through 15 -- moved in with Tina's parents.

Though the cycle has seemed nearly impossible to break, Tina said she took an important step forward in early May.

With her father's assistance, she was able to move into a South Haven apartment.

The next step, she said, will be to land a job with a sustainable wage and get her children back under her roof.

Marc Chase contributed to this story.

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