TOPEKA—The poorest county in the U.S. is Buffalo in South Dakota, home of the Crow Creek Sioux Indian Reservation. About 62 percent of the children there live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Many of the homes in that thinly populated area of about 2,000 people lack plumbing.
But the situation is considerably worse in a neighborhood here of about 5,600 people three miles south of the Kansas Statehouse.
Hi-Crest West has a childhood poverty rate of 92 percent, according to a recent report prepared for the city’s planning department. Many of its occupied dwellings have boarded up windows and at least two fire-scarred houses have stood in charred and abandoned ruin for months.
The crime rate is higher than elsewhere in the city. Some residents chain fierce dogs in the front yard for protection. More foster children come from Hi-Crest West than anywhere else in Shawnee County.
The neighborhood elementary school, Avondale East, was closed by the Topeka school district about 18 months ago. Average property values in Hi-Crest West are the lowest in the city and so is the percentage of home ownership.
Studies have shown that people are more likely to have poor health when they live in poverty, are poorly educated, or do not have ready access to healthy food, for example.
The neighborhood was never a place for the city’s well heeled. Most of the houses are small, built on concrete slabs during or soon after World War II. In its heyday, Hi-Crest West was home for many of the military or support families stationed at Forbes Field, a base south of Topeka first for B-29 bombers and then later during the Cold War for nuclear missile squadrons.
“This neighborhood — when we moved in in 1961 — was primarily young families with children,” said Nelly Hogan, who recently moved back to Hi-Crest with her husband after being away 18 years.
But when the military base went through one of its early force reductions, the Hi-Crest homes were difficult to sell so many people “moved off and left them,” Hogan said.
June 8, 1966, the city was hit by one of the costliest tornadoes in history. Sixteen people were killed and early 1,000 homes were obliterated. Thousands more were damaged, but Hi-Crest was mostly spared by the storm, which tore a 22-mile path, a half-mile wide.
So, Hogan said the city subsequently moved displaced families from the city’s north side into many of Hi-Crest’s empty houses.
It became a neighborhood mostly of renters, which meant fewer people rooted in it.
“And we now have some really bad landlords,” who don’t maintain their properties, said Hogan, one of the neighborhood’s remaining homeowners. “What we need are some good (building) codes with teeth in them.”
‘From bad to worse’
Hi-Crest West increasingly became a neighborhood of last resort — a place residents try to leave behind or simply watch decline.
“I’ve lived in the neighborhood almost 20 years now, and I’ve seen it go from bad to worse,” said Keith Holden, 33. “There’s always a fight or something at the end of the block, a lot of violence. You can tell the kids that have grown up around here. They just bad mouth, don’t care.”
“I’ve tried to leave (Hi-Crest and Topeka) several times, it just hasn’t worked out,” said Nicole Barrand, a 27-year-old mother of two, speaking in a direct, matter-of-fact tone that didn’t completely mask the wistfulness of the remark.
Many who live here are described as “homeless with a roof over their heads,” because their houses lack electricity, gas, telephone service and/or running water, according to Sally Zellers, director of Hi-Crest NET, a recently formed nonprofit group that has been cataloging the neighborhood’s problems house by house, block by block, with hopes of seeing them solved or at least mitigated.
“Where you’re sitting is in the middle of an intensive-care area,” said Zellers, “We’ve got a whole host of issues to look at for stabilizing and empowering this neighborhood.”
Rescue not dependency
Hi-Crest NET (Neighborhood Empowerment and Transformation) was launched about a year ago, a brainchild of the Topeka Rescue Mission.
The rescue mission is a large and growing social service agency anchored by a homeless shelter just north of the Kansas River, in one of Topeka’s older business districts.
Barry Feaker, the executive director, has worked at the mission for almost 30 years, and has witnessed the change in the numbers and types of people who are homeless.
The rescue mission, which was started about 60 years ago, once dealt mostly with chronically homeless men, down-and-outers plagued by drinking or drug problems, about 20 or 30 per night.
But over time, that has changed. Now there are growing numbers of temporarily homeless women, children and families, people who cycle in and out of homelessness due to poverty. The shelter now provides help to hundreds of people every day instead of a couple dozen and most nights is filled beyond capacity, which means there are people sleeping on cots or mattresses on the floor.
“Our biggest challenge the last four years has been (the growing number of) women and children,” Feaker said, noting that a 60,000-foot building expansion is being planned to try to deal with the increased demand for help.
Many of those shelter residents come from and tend to return to the same low-income Topeka neighborhoods, Hi-Crest being one of the chief among them.
“I think that we have got an economic disparity in our country that is growing and growing between the haves and have-nots and it will continue to be growing even in Topeka, Kan.,” Feaker said.
“Seventy-eight percent of kids in Topeka (district) public schools are eligible for free or reduced lunch,” he said. “You can argue whether that’s a true indicator of poverty...but that’s 13,000 kids. What's the answer to all that? We believe getting reinvested in people’s lives in their neighborhoods is essential.”
Hence, the creation of Hi-Crest NET, part of an effort that is bringing volunteers into what Feaker calls Topeka’s “most challenged” neighborhood.
A few months ago, the organization opened an office in the former Avondale East elementary school and other aid groups have too, including the Community Resources Council.
The result has been scores of volunteers — many of them from churches — coming to Hi-Crest from other Topeka neighborhoods.
Feaker said each volunteer is asked to first read a book titled “Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help and How to Reverse It,” by Robert Lupton.
The premise of the book is that many charitable efforts hurt the poor by encouraging dependency. Lupton recommends these guidelines to avoid that:
- Never do for the poor what they can do for themselves.
- Limit one-way giving to emergencies.
- Empower the poor through employment, lending, and investing.
- Subordinate self-interest to the needs of those being served.
- Listen closely to those you seek to help.
- Above all, do no harm.
Zellers said Hi-Crest NET is still mostly in the process of “listening closely” to those they seek to help, though adhering to Lupton’s rules is “challenging because we want to help everyone that needs us.”
But you can’t listen until people start talking to you. So, early efforts have focused on meeting people from the neighborhood and building relationships with them.
The group has been staging monthly neighborhood dinners at the old Avondale East gym that draw up to 200 people, giving volunteers and residents a chance to mingle.
Volunteers also have been going door-to-door trying to meet as many people as possible, with mixed results. Some residents are friendly and welcoming. Others simply refuse to answer the door.
“We walk it once a month, putting out flyers, letting them know the school is open again. Not as a school but as a resource area for them,” Zellers said. “There are multitudes of cultures in this neighborhood. Multitudes.”
All involved in the effort acknowledge it likely will be a long, arduous process.
“Kind of like pushing a boulder up hill,” is the way Cathy Ramshaw, a “full-time” Hi-Crest NET volunteer, described it.
Ramshaw, who looks like the epitome of a suburban soccer mom, said she was drawn to the effort after learning that the neighborhood was producing a high percentage of the county’s foster children.
She and her husband adopted a seriously troubled child who had gone through a series of foster homes and a failed adoption before coming to them six years ago at the age of three.
“I was her sixth mother,” Ramshaw said. “When I found out this area produced the highest number of CINC (Child in Need of Care) kids in Shawnee County, I knew this was the place I needed to be. This is personal for me.
“We’re trying to create a small town here,” she said. “Most people in Topeka would never know this existed. There is no reason to come to Hi-Crest.”
In their talks with the residents and from their observations, Zellers and Ramshaw said they have begun to identify some of the core needs of the neighborhood.
Food and nutrition is a problem. Zellers described the neighborhood as a “food desert.” The closest thing to a neighborhood grocery closed years ago. But in keeping with the precepts of Lupton’s book, they don’t want to simply open a charity pantry or “food drop.”
Instead, they are looking at the possibility of promoting neighborhood gardens where residents could cultivate their own crops and perhaps develop a farmers’ market. They also are considering cooking classes.
They see a need for a pre-school or daycare center.
“And housing is a huge issue,” Zellers aid. “We have everything from black mold and cockroaches and snakes and holes in the walls to leaky roofs and collapsed sewer lines...a huge health issue is what’s behind those four walls.”
She said a “handful of landlords own a lot of properties,” so the group is looking for ways to approach the landlords about dealing with some of the problems or pushing the city for stronger code enforcement.
Meanwhile, they are tackling individual residents’ problems best they can and as they come across them.
For example, they helped a former prison inmate with a felony record and a family find a job in a fast-food eatery, which in-and-of itself was no small accomplishment. But the effort to help this one family got even more complicated. The job was across town and the man’s shift ended at 2 a.m. after the buses were running. He has no car.
“Great. Now we need a 2 a.m. car pool,” Zellers said
They also found a resident, Federico Muro, who is converting an old RV into a food truck with the aim of launching his own business, which he plans to call El Rey Burritos. They got Muro connected with Robert Krause, an experienced restaurant operator and caterer who has volunteered to mentor Muro.
Jeremy Wynne, a Hi-Crest NET volunteer and nursing student who attends Fellowship Baptist Church, rented a home in the neighborhood with a roommate and is running Doxazo Club, which sponsors activities for the neighborhood children. He hosts a dinner and prayer session at his home every Monday.
“The skill sets when you come to Hi-Crest, you name it, we need it,” Ramshaw said.
There is evidence that the various efforts are beginning to work, which has sparked some cautious optimism.
For example, the crime rate has begun to drop.
“The last month was really not that bad,” said Sgt. Kevin Schultz, giving an update at a recent meeting of the Hi-Crest Neighborhood Improvement Association.
Four of six reported burglaries were unsuccessful, he said, which might be attributable to neighbors watching out for one another and calling police. There were only two auto thefts and “only a couple of instances” of domestic battery.
But he also noted the likelihood that many crimes remained unreported.
Schultz and other Topeka police have become more visible in the neighborhood since the revitalization effort started, residents said. Schultz attends the monthly neighborhood dinners and otherwise makes people aware he is available to help. He oversees the neighborhood’s beat cops.
At the association meeting, he was told about a “problem house” where the children were home all day, running around the neighborhood, perhaps truant from school.
Schultz said he was already aware of the house. The children, he said, were being home schooled but that he was keeping an eye on the situation.
A city building code enforcer announced that two burned-out houses on Fremont Street “were scheduled to be down by the end of November.”
That was greeted as good news, but a couple of association members said they would believe it when they saw it.
And growing numbers of residents are becoming familiar with the volunteers and the revitalization efforts.
“I went to the (neighborhood dinner) meeting last month and then went in again on Wednesday,” said Jamilia Williams, a 36-year-old single mother of six. “They are nice people. I enjoy talking with them. I’m familiar with all the things they're trying to change and new things they're trying to bring.”
Williams had the water cut off at her house after she and dozens others lost their jobs at a Topeka nursing home recently closed by the state for repeated failure to meet inspection standards.
“They're trying to find resources for the single parents that are having a hard time finding a job,” she said of Hi-Crest NET. “I think that's going to be the most difficult thing. The greatest thing for the area to try to keep poverty down would be to help people find jobs.”
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