Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

May 18, 2014

Poverty in the Lock City

By Michael Canfield michael.canfield@lockportjournal.com
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — When Constance Thornton got out of jail last year, she knew going back to Niagara Falls would perpetuate a cycle she was desperate to break out of. Needing a change, and virtually homeless, she reached out to Lockport CARES, a local agency who provides temporary housing for people in need of shelter.

“I heard about Lockport CARES while I was in jail from one of the volunteers that was there,” she said, adding that her faith led her to believe she was doing the right thing. “I was nervous, but they were really nice, almost scary nice. I come from a world where people are only nice to you if they want something, so I figured they were either aliens, or God really loves me.”

For Thornton, 31, the respite Lockport CARES offered her has led to her turning her life around. She now has an apartment in Lockport, a job and plans to go back to school.

“It started on a leap of faith,” she said. “Life is happening since then.”

Thornton’s story is one of coming through a hard time with the support of a caring community and being offered the resources to get back on her feet. It’s one Lockport’s churches and human service agencies can point to as they continue to help local residents break out of poverty. 

The good news is that organizations set up to assist impoverished residents in the area have always had good working relationships, and since a Lockport poverty report was released by the John R. Oishei Foundation and the University at Buffalo Regional Institute last spring, area agencies like Lockport CARES and other service providers are now working together more intently to ameliorate the issue. 

“They’ve been very receptive to working in more of a collaborative nature and getting to know their other human service and social service partners,” said Lawrence H. Cook, senior program officer at the Oishei Foundation. “They’re really building together a network where they can make the necessary referrals and things of that nature. There hasn’t been a lot of resistance.”

The bad news for Lockport, however, is that almost 6,000 residents live on incomes below the federal poverty level, while an additional 6,800 residents live on incomes close to the poverty level. All together, around 12,800 people are struggling financially in the town and city, which is one-in-three residents, or 32 percent of the roughly 41,700 people living in Lockport. 

The report is one of 12 focused on municipalities in Niagara and Erie counties released by the Oishei Foundation in conjunction with UBRI. The foundation’s Mobile Safety-Net Team works on the ground in each town or city, gathering data and information for the reports, while researchers from UBRI analyze the data, pore over a variety of census data and put the report together. 

Lockport was the first report the partnership released, said Mobile Safety-Net Team Supervisor and Lockport native Jeffrey Pirrone. Reports have also been released on Newfane and Niagara Falls.

Two Lockports

According to Pirrone, the report is the “tale of two Lockports.” 

“There really are two Lockports,” he said. “It’s easy to miss if you’re not looking for some of the need in some of the areas. Once you dig into it, you see that it’s there, and it’s really impacting a great many things in the community.”

Working at the Salvation Army on Cottage Street, Major John Wheeler is on the front lines of the poverty problem every day. The people who come to the Salvation Army for assistance are the “invisible Lockport,” he said.  

During the course of reporting this story, the Union Sun & Journal had difficulty finding residents willing to discuss their financial situations, which didn’t surprise Wheeler. People in poverty like to put up the facade that everything is OK, he said. That’s why people buy Nikes and Levis for their children when there’s no food in the house. 

“The poverty is hidden,” he said. “The kids may be sleeping on the floor because they can’t afford a bed, but in public, they look good.”

A lot of people who are affected by poverty in Lockport don’t believe they’re actually in poverty, said Chris Smith, program coordinator for the Grigg Lewis Foundation Inc., which — among other things — helps to set-up and fund initiatives aimed at getting residents of Niagara County out of poverty. 

Lockport statistics

Several areas stand out in the report. 

• Forty-seven percent of single mothers in Lockport are living in poverty, while 32 percent of single father households are.

• Twenty-two percent of the population of Lockport under 18 is living in poverty.

• There are nearly 40 public and private service providers operating in Lockport, with over 2,700 employees.

• Around 1,720 households operate without a vehicle. Getting to either Buffalo or Niagara Falls by bus can take anywhere from an hour to three hours, depending on the time of day.

•  Nearly 2,300 residents who are in or near poverty are new to Lockport. 

• Forty-one percent of residents living in poverty are centered around the city’s core, while 22 percent live in the town. 

Instilling Hope

While the poverty issue isn’t as bad in Lockport as other towns and cities in the area, Wheeler said, there are serious issues, like the “mindset of poverty.” 

“We’ve been at this war on poverty or over 50 years,” he said. “The average person would say we’re losing.”

According to Wheeler, the way we’ve been dealing with poverty has created an attitude that if people want something, they either “steal it or ask for it.”

“We need to change the mindset,” he said. “That’s what keeps people in poverty, and that’s what their kids are growing up with. It’s horrible.”

Wheeler said he’s had people come in and ask for help paying their utility bill. When they go over the person’s expenditures for the month, they find that they’re paying $120 for cable, instead of paying the electric bill.

“To them, the cable is more important,” he said, noting that entertainment makes people living in poverty feel normal. “If the electricity is turned off, the TV isn’t going to work.”

Low expectations come along with the mindset of poverty, Wheeler said. 

“The thinking leads to taking what you can get rather than aiming for what you can get,” he said. “If the best you can get is a small, one-bedroom apartment with cockroaches, you accept that, rather than saying, ‘I’m not going to put up with that.’ In their life, there’s no reason to make anything better. It’s ‘this is what I get.’ “

Through the work the Grigg Lewis Foundation has been doing, they’ve learned that poverty isn’t something they can “fight,” Smith said. 

“What we can do is get people focused out of poverty,” she said. 

One way to do that, Wheeler said, is to work with children in poverty, and give them the hope that they can do better for themselves. He’s had 10- and 11-year-old children tell him that their dream in life is to collect their own welfare check, or work at McDonald’s part-time.

“Whatever happened to owning a mansion or driving a Rolls?,” he said. “They don’t have that dream. It’d be nice to have a Mercedes in the driveway, but not for them. They don’t think it’s possible, so they just mentally give up.” 

It is possible to impart in children that they can achieve more in life, Wheeler said. 

“The McDonald’s kid did get into college,” he said.

This is the first part of a series on poverty in Lockport. Future articles will take an in-depth look at some of the specific poverty-related problems in Lockport, and what's being done about them.

Contact reporter Michael Canfield at 439-9222, ext. 6246, or follow him on Twitter @MikeCanfield36.