By Kelcey Norris
While the majority of students at Youngstown State University have access to food, warm clothing and a roof over their heads, more than one-third of the surrounding community is not so lucky. University and community organizations in Youngstown are fighting back to help those less fortunate.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 36.2% of Youngstown residents are living in poverty, which is a steady decrease since 2014, when the poverty rate was 40.7%.
For the entire nation, 15.5% of Americans lived in poverty in 2014 — showing that the poverty levels in Youngstown are over twice the national average.
Amanda Fehlbaum, professor of sociology, said poverty is typically defined as a deficiency in common necessities. This can be material goods such as clothing or food as well as the loss of income or a family member.
She said individuals who are impoverished can struggle to get out of their current situation.
“Poverty can happen at any time,” Fehlbaum said. “You can be doing everything ‘right’ and be one burst appendix away from thousands of dollars in bills you have to scramble to pay.”
Outside influences such as reliable transportation and childcare are also factors that cause insufficient income. Fehlbaum said poverty involves more than just employment.
“The idea behind picking oneself up by the bootstraps is very common. Being in poverty affects not just the amount of money they have, but it affects a person’s social capital, their access to education, their health,” she said.
Organizations and nonprofits in Youngstown provide support for individuals in poverty. One such organization is Catholic Charities. Terry Vicars is a case manager working primarily with homeless individuals in the county.
“We have an emergency assistance program that helps … with utilities and food assistance,” he said. “We have a senior program that helps people get groceries and schedule doctors’ appointments, as well as a Hispanic ministry, which is just about nine months old.”
Vicars, who has worked at Catholic Charities for 22 years, said his undergraduate degree in philosophy and religious studies ties in perfectly with his career.
He said the city needs to take action and provide more outlets for those in need. Organizations exist to help the homeless population, but the number of people in need can be overwhelming.
“Resources are always in short supply. For example, the Youngstown Rescue Mission, while we’re very fortunate to have them, their family unit … has been chronically full for at least four years,” he said.
Community members, according to Vicars, need to adjust the way they think about people in poverty. This is the first step to improvement.
“Get this thought out of your head that they are lazy,” he said. “They may be running circles around you as far as the number of hours they work in a week. … Let’s change our attitudes.”
Poverty Awareness in Youngstown, also called PAYO, is a YSU organization dedicated to helping those in need. Marta Hergenrother, a senior psychology major, said PAYO brings awareness to both poverty and homelessness in the greater Youngstown area.
“We offer students the opportunity to engage in service activities like volunteering at soup kitchens,” she said. “We do a can drive and donate everything we collect to The Salvation Army so they can be distributed to food pantries around the area.”
Hergenrother said PAYO also hosts a carnival every year for charity and is also looking to donate other items, such as winter coats.
“In the Youngstown area, there’s a lack of access to … food because Youngstown is a food desert. There isn’t a grocery store in the city proper. Housing can also be a huge [struggle] for people in Youngstown,” she said.
In order to improve the situation, Hergenrother said people living in suburban areas need to take action to help.
“Educating other people and letting them know that there are so many people in Youngstown living in poverty,” she said. “Especially the people who live in the suburbs … because it’s so easy for people to get stuck in their own bubbles. The city needs to educate those in the suburbs and encourage them to help.”
Hergenrother said she was inspired to get involved in PAYO and similar organizations because she was fortunate to have access to necessary resources growing up.
“I went to high school with a lot of kids who grew up in inner-city Youngstown and whose families were in poverty or close to it,” she said. “Being exposed to their problems and what they have to go through shocked me. It opened my eyes to what a lot of people have to go through.”