My Turn: Juneau's Poverty, part 1

Posted: Monday, November 22, 2010

Editor's note: This My turn is the first in a series of monthly opinion pieces addressing poverty in Juneau.

The Social Justice Committee of Juneau's Unitarian Universalist Fellowship has chosen the issue of poverty for our focus this year. This choice reminds me of one of Yogi Berra's sayings, "You can observe a lot by just watching."

Our committee's study of this issue led us to realize the complexities and challenges are enormous and we must focus on some of its parts. We have chosen to continue the study of one part that is obviously here among us as we watch - homelessness.

Before describing our plans to explore, learn and teach about homelessness in Juneau and Douglas, a little background of our discourse seemed needed. At first, our discussions kept returning to impressions that poverty is primarily economic. In other words, if people don't have enough money - and that usually means the family is without jobs to have enough income - they are "living in poverty." Then we began to realize that "enough money" is relative to the cost of living, levels of education in the family, social and cultural class, unavoidable impacts from national and global economic forces and interwoven factors such as gender, family supports and illnesses.

As a pediatrician, I continue to share some insights about the relation between poverty and child neglect. Ongoing media coverage, especially about Alaska data, leaves the impression that all forms of child abuse and family violence continue to skyrocket out of control. This is despite huge efforts by public and private initiatives and laws to manage this since the 1970s. While there is a rough correlation between poverty and societal violence, carefully analyzed data from all 50 states now indicate decreases in all forms of child abuse - except child neglect.

Children with poor nutrition, cold wintertime homes, both parents struggling just to make ends meet or living in households plagued with the common health burdens of alcoholism and other drug abuse remain at high risk for significant neglect. While the latest U.S. Incidence Study of Child Abuse, published in early 2010, shows a 25 percent reduction in physical, emotional and sexual abuse, there was no such reduction in neglect. Every day in private pediatric practice here in Juneau, I see frightened and over-stressed parents with difficult to manage health and behavioral need in their children. The temptation to blame parents can be overwhelming and must be overcome. I submit it is poverty writ large in our teetering national economy that needs to be addressed.

My nurse practitioner, physician and mental health counselor colleagues, along with multiple other precious resources like REACH, HOPE, Love Inc., FAS clinic, Public Health Nurses, Office of Children's Services front line social workers, Catholic Community Services, SEARHC, Bartlett Regional Hospital, Big Brothers-Big Sisters, the Teen Health Centers, communities of faith, and the countless unrecognized citizen and neighbor volunteers will continue to try to meet individual and family needs as best we can. For now, our Social Justice Committee wants to understand, wants to try to shine a light of realistic optimism and share what seems to be the big dark hole of poverty.

The Committee's plan for learning and sharing about poverty features a monthly session that will explore some of the aspects of homelessness in Juneau. These special sessions are open to all interested and will occur on the first Sunday of each month. Scott Ciambor, director of the Juneau Homeless Coalition and other guest speakers led the first session on Oct. 3. We learned about the estimated 500 plus of our fellow citizens who are homeless. We discussed a variety of resources that might be available to reduce this number. We tried to consider some unmet needs and wants of homeless people.

As we continue to observe and better understand the many faces of poverty, we will next focus on homelessness among school children. On Sunday, Dec. 5, Sally Donaldson, school counselor at Dzantik'I Heeni Middle School, and Jess Brown, teen advocate at the Zach Gordon Youth Center, will lead the discussion.

We cordially invite the public to join in these educational sessions. We meet from 10 to 11 a.m. at the Temple Sukkut Shalom. Please call with your questions or suggestions.

• Brown is a Juneau pediatrician.



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