By Frank George and Justin Wier
The graphic used in this article has been edited. The graphic originally mistakenly reported that 25,962 residents of Struthers, Campbell and Canfield lived in poverty. This number is actually the total population of these areas.
Poverty Awareness in Youngstown, a new service project that arose from collaboration between Youngstown State University Student Government Association and the Honors College, hosted a speaker from the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Company on Wednesday.
Megan Evans, who co-founded the initiative, said their goal is to inform students and help disadvantaged families in the area.
“[We] essentially want to raise donations and collections in order to benefit the Youngstown City School free lunch families. Youngstown City [Schools], actually 98.2 percent of their students are considered economically disadvantaged, so it’s a pretty large number and we just want to raise awareness on campus and try to help these people since they’re in our community,” Evans said.
Ashley Orr, SGA presidential candidate and current vice president for financial affairs in SGA, founded the initiative with Evans and helped her organize the event.
“I’m very concerned about the poverty issues, the concentrated poverty here in Youngstown and I think, at the university level, we need to create awareness so that each of us as economic individuals are aware of the lack of economic opportunity here in Youngstown and we can help,” Orr said.
Bradley McHugh, who works with the YNDC as part of the Americorps VISTA program, spoke on Wednesday about fighting blight in Youngstown’s neighborhoods as a means of combating poverty.
“The human cost of poverty is the stifling of dreams,” McHugh said.
He said the most common issues raised by residents of Youngstown’s neighborhoods are vacant houses, potholes and infrastructure problems, crime, lack of shopping and a lack of properly managed green space.
“If you board up a house — clean it up and make it look presentable or stable until they demolish it — it reduces crime in the surrounding area,” McHugh said.
It also stabilizes property values and attracts investment and jobs.
He stressed the importance of building partnerships with the people who live in the neighborhoods where they do work.
“One of the things we’ve had to learn is, you have to step back and find out what it is that the neighborhood wants. What’s their vision? It may not be my vision for a neighborhood, but that’s alright,” McHugh said. “They have the right and they have the privilege of determining their own destinies, but sometimes all it needs is a little spark to bring hope.”
He said there are concrete things people can do to fight poverty, such as volunteering or building relationships with the people around you.
“One thing that people don’t talk about is the importance of knowing your neighbors. We live in this generation [where] we have all these friends like on Facebook, we are connected in ways that are unprecedented, but we’re very lonely; we don’t know each other,” McHugh said. “A lot of times we live in communities in isolation, and isolation leads to poverty. That’s what it comes down to, poverty not just of finances, but poverty of mind and poverty of spirit, and that’s the most dangerous kind.”
He said that everyone can do something, and that educating oneself on the issues is a good place to start.
“Go to the library and read, get documentaries out, go to community meetings and presentations — there’s always something happening. This city is great for that. There’s always someplace to go, somewhere to sit and listen and learn,” McHugh said.
Nick Chretien, SGA presidential candidate and president of YSUscape, attended the event. He said he’s worked with YNDC in the past.
“I see all the work that’s going on in the neighborhoods to combat poverty and stuff like this, so it’s interesting to see them finally engage the students on campus, and I think it’s a great step towards getting students involved in the whole process,” Chretien said.
Rebecca Banks, a graduating senior and a member of the Bridges Out of Poverty Student Union, was also in attendance and said she struggled with poverty when she was starting at YSU.
“Anything like this is dear to me. I’m excited,” Banks said. “My whole first semester, I walked down literally three days a week to go eat at the soup kitchen, so it’s very personal to me.”
Jim Tressel, president of YSU, introduced McHugh’s presentation. Tressel said it’s important to talk about these issues because of the startling poverty statistics in the community.
“I’m proud that they’re bringing this out,” Tressel said. “Anytime you start discussing things you can maybe come up with some ways to inch-by-inch have some solutions, and this is an opportunity to begin that.”
Future PAYO events include a lecture featuring speakers from Second Harvest Food Bank in Kilcawley Center’s Ohio Room on April 12, a collection drive in partnership with Students For a Better Youngstown and a charity concert featuring Angela Perley and the Howlin’ Moons at Suzie’s Dogs and Drafts on April 16.