Poloncarz’s plan for tackling poverty in Erie County draws mixed reviews
The success of Erie County’s anti-poverty plan, introduced in the spring, depends on helping people like Eman Jabbar, who struggled to find a job after emigrating from Iraq and moving to Riverside more than two years ago.
After completing a child care training program, she welcomed the first children into her home day care last month.
The plan also counts on working with nonprofit agencies, like those at the Erie County Health Mall on Broadway near Bailey Avenue, which opened a year ago, allowing patients to be examined and treated close to their neighborhoods.
“I can get there in 10 or 15 minutes,” said Christine Laird, 72, who lives on Seneca Street. “The facility is clean and the staff is wonderful. They have much more on hand, so if the doctor gives you a slip for bloodwork, you can get it done right there.”
Efforts like these can lift people out of poverty, or at least lower the costs of caring for them, said Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, who has made reducing poverty a focal point of his administration as he prepares to run for re-election.
“I had a few people say, ‘Mark, why are you doing this?’ People don’t vote based on health and human services,’ ” Poloncarz said.
“I’m not doing it for votes,” he said. “It will cost us less in the long run.”
Supporting services that lead to a healthier population – he counts respite care, mental health programs in schools and senior fitness programs among them – could save millions in Medicaid dollars alone, he said.
It’s no small matter. Erie County is the primary provider of health and human services in the community, and more than half of the county’s $1.45 billion budget goes toward it.
Poloncarz announced in March a 49-point agenda called “Initiatives for a Stronger Community.”
“By addressing the root causes, we create a stronger community and we reduce our costs,” he said. “We looked at areas where we could have an impact, and could strengthen families on the edge so they don’t fall over into poverty.”
Some anti-poverty advocates welcomed the plan. Others are not overly impressed.
“I’ve seen nothing here to suggest that what Mark is planning goes beyond repackaging and restructuring what is there,” said Henry Louis Taylor, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University at Buffalo.
Taylor, however, believes Poloncarz is on the right track in encouraging more cooperation among government and private agencies.
“It’s a fantastic idea to build more collaboration,” Taylor said. “Right now, these people and groups do not work together as teams.”
Marlies Wesolowski is on the front line of poverty initiatives, as executive director of the Lt. Col. Matt Urban Human Services Center. Located on Broadway, the agency provides housing services, senior services, homeless outreach, education and three food pantries.
She applauds the county executive for trying to solve what seem like intractable problems.
“People get very comfortable in their jobs, so telling them you want to change the way they do things can be unsettling,” Wesolowski said. “This policy is one that was long overdue. Time will tell if it makes a difference.”
No silver bullets
With the region’s economy improving, 2015 is a good year to try make Erie County prosperous for all residents, Poloncarz said.
“We need to build a foundation for the future so this great revival we are experiencing is not just for the lucky few,” Poloncarz said. “If we don’t do it now, we will never do it.”
Among the efforts:
• Subsidizing internships for adults interested in working in child care, so they can get training and be certified;
• Encouraging local employers to train former prisoners to work in manufacturing and construction and make them employable;
• Leveraging outside funds to rehabilitate rental housing and support nonprofit developers in building affordable family housing;
• Coordinating with Say Yes and Buffalo Public Schools, including creating mobile health centers for students in their schools for screenings, contraceptive counseling, immunizations and mental health care;
• Attaching Child Protective Services liaisons to homeless and women’s shelters, schools, hospitals and law enforcement to identify children at risk; and
• Expanding outreach in lead poisoning prevention programs.
Poloncarz called communication the key to making the initiatives work.
That will start within county government, Poloncarz said.
The plans were devised by officials in the county departments and agencies for health, social services, senior services, mental health, probation, veterans’ services, public advocacy and the disabled, all of which deal with many of the same people.
Despite the overlap, the services often were “siloed,” with those in some departments not knowing what those in other departments were doing.
‘Through the cracks’
From her perspective, Wesolowski of the Matt Urban Human Services Center said one of the greatest failings of the current system is that the people who need help – those who may be schizophrenic, have hearing or vision loss, suffer from depression or who are overwhelmed by problems – often don’t have any idea what services exist or how to access them.
All too often, people are ill-equipped to figure it out.
“Even though the general public will think there are a whole bunch of ‘savvy’ folks out there who ‘game’ the system,” Wesolowski said, “I will tell you that I see a lot of people who don’t know which end is up. They need help just getting help.
“Half of the battle is getting people to know what services are available, where the services are and to have access to the services,” she added. “I serve 21,000 clients every year, but we are doing things we shouldn’t be doing – some of these services, it’s not my strength, not my wheelhouse.”
If nothing else, she hopes the initiatives will lead those who provide health care, housing, food, shelter from violence, mental health treatment and assorted other services to join forces and become more effective.
“There’s some agencies, for reasons of turf or that people are too busy … well, you can take your eye off the ball, and people can fall through the cracks,” she said.
Wesolowski said Poloncarz’s initiative can help in another way, as well.
“I’m hopeful that this will get folks out of County Hall,” she said. “Checking out what’s going on in the community makes them more sensitive to the need that’s there.”
Taylor of UB said the focus needs to be more local.
“You can’t look at Erie County or the city as the target,” he said. “The changes have to be made in delivery of services at the neighborhood level.”
“The difficulties and hardship come when you don’t even have money to put food on the table and then you also have to find public transportation to get to the help you need,” Wesolowski said.
Finding what works
The partnership of government and nonprofit agencies worked for Jabbar, who opened a day care in her home. She graduated from the child care training at Journey’s End Resettlement Agency.
Jabbar earned a college degree in her native Iraq and taught elementary school before her family fled to the United States. Despite her education, she struggled to find a job.
“It is harder here than in Iraq, understanding the many regulations and rules,” she said through an interpreter. “Doing that in a different language is the hardest.”
But she found the Journey’s End classes in running a child care center enjoyable. The agency supplied teachers and interpreters and Erie County employees gave advice on how to meet the health and safety standards so they could be licensed.
The county also joined forces with private nonprofits to reopen the Erie County Health Mall on Broadway near Bailey. It began accepting patients in its newly renovated offices in May 2014. Patients can take care of all their health care in one place, sometimes in one visit, and many do.
Poloncarz directed his commissioners and department heads to look at other ways Erie County can do a better job serving its poorest residents.
“You shouldn’t decide not to do something because it’s hard,” Poloncarz said.
Taylor said he’s skeptical that a restructuring, no matter how broad, will make much of an improvement.
“When you say you want to get people out of poverty, you don’t tell us anything,” he said. “Moving people from ‘very low income’ to ‘low income’ is not going to change the challenges they are facing.”
Nevertheless, Poloncarz is serious about trying to make a dent.
Poloncarz points to the Health Mall, staffed by Catholic Health, UB Dental, and Mid-Erie and Lakeshore Mental Health.
“We changed the model and we have seen 10,000 visits since it reopened a year ago,” Poloncarz said.