"Our ultimate goal is to have each resident become self-sufficient," says service manager Jackie Reynolds. That's a lofty goal with so little cash to accomplish it.
What the Urban League is primarily able to do is to provide referrals to other agencies that offer tangible services. They can refer residents to programs that will help with things like day care, and getting a GED or technical education. They also provide free bus passes.
These are all much-needed services, but they aren't enough to lift many to self-sufficiency. Of the 1,100 families who moved from College Hill and Ponce de Leon, so far only about 600 have gone to the Urban League for assistance. Connie Burton is a resident of the Robles Park public housing project and a longtime community activist. She hosts Straight Talk, a talk-radio show on WMNF-88.5 FM on Sunday morning, and is often critical of the Tampa Housing Authority. But back in 1997, when the HOPE VI grant for College Hill and Ponce de Leon was just an application, she was anything but critical. She wrote a letter supporting HOPE VI that was included in the grant application to show that the project had community support. The letter, addressed to then-THA director Arthur Milligan Jr., states, "The efforts to enable public-housing residents the opportunity to become economically self-sufficient and to prevent unnecessary institutionalization address the concerns that we had at the time of applying for our designation."
Burton goes on to say, "... we will be affected but we will benefit from the Move to Work Demonstration Program and the approval of the HOPE VI Grant if Tampa Housing Authority plans to submit an Application."
Now four years later, she says, "I was duped."
At the time that she wrote the letter of support, says Burton, she was under the impression that the grant would benefit the public-housing residents who were currently living in College Hill and Ponce de Leon. However, over time, the concept of who would benefit became clearer. Residents who initially thought that they would be able to move back to their old neighborhood once it was new and improved found that there were now new requirements. One of the requirements is something many of the residents don't have: a job. All residents in the new community must either be employed or be enrolled in a work program that will get them employed in short order. With about 80 percent of public-housing residents reporting income from public assistance, according to HUD, this ensures that almost no old resident will be invited back to the new community.
"Off the backs of poor people they get all of this money, using the statistics and misery of the poor," says Burton. "They tell the poor that this is going to be a benefit for you, but really their intention is to build a housing stock for middle-class people."
While residents weren't clear on the details of what would be required of them if they wanted to move back into the new community, says Burton, the big picture looked good. "They do a great motivational pitch," she says. "You know, get-up-on-your-feet kind of sermons."
But it takes more than a sermon to get people on their feet. Ryans concedes that one of the biggest problems in public housing is drugs. While the housing authority can kick residents out for drug- or alcohol-related problems, neither THA nor the Urban League can do much to help people kick the habit. There is also little help for some of the psychological effects of poverty, like depression or anxiety. Ditto for problems like spouse abuse.
It seems when residents fall down, either because of a mistake they made or because of circumstances beyond their control, the system that is set up to help tends to push them further over the edge. Although McDanieal was proud when she first moved into her new apartment, she soon noticed that it was rarely a beautiful day in the Oak Forest neighborhood. The landlord who seemed "cool" in the beginning got hot when McDanieal filled her children's pool outside, she says. He was equally unhappy when she gave her daughter a birthday party outdoors.
McDanieal, a friendly woman used to the camaraderie of her Ponce de Leon community, befriended other Section 8 mothers in the complex. Soon she and her new friends would bring their children outside to play while they chatted and got to know each other. What some would call community, her landlord called loitering.
McDanieal says she also did a lot of "loitering" in the rental office, trying to get management to fix the ceiling in her bathroom, which she said was about to fall in on her and her children, among other things. It was never fixed.