BALTIMORE — It’s an economic reality. The poor are becoming poorer. Amid the economic downturn, people with little education are losing entry-level service jobs to high school and college graduates. With dwindling opportunities to work, the poverty-stricken often wind up roaming the streets in a survival mode that often includes drugs, crime and despair.
Bill Simpson’s office, nestled in a row house in what he calls the “poorest neighborhood in Maryland” — Baltimore’s McElderry Park — is surrounded by distress.
Within one-third mile of Simpson’s office, 846 households scrape by on less than $15,000 a year — 30 percent below the U.S. poverty level for a family of four. Reach out to two-thirds of a mile and the number triples to 2,559 households.
“In any given month, about 60 percent are unemployed. Our high school dropout rate is over 65 percent, and our teen pregnancy rate exceeds 80 percent,” says Simpson, executive director of Open Door Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to revitalizing families and neighborhoods on Baltimore’s lower east side.
“Business as usual won’t get it done here.”
For Simpson, who moved his office into the neighborhood this past summer, it is worth the hour-long commute to simply “show up” and seek to make a difference in the hurting community. The Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware helped the ministry get started.
Simpson feels McElderry Park is “quarantined” from the rest of the city because of its overwhelming needs. But he also knows that, through Christ, much can be accomplished there.
“Emphasizing the redemptive principles of renewal, restoration and reconciliation, we believe it’s wrong for 140,000 Baltimoreans to live in poverty in the nation’s most affluent state,” Simpson asserts. “We are strong advocates for addressing the generational poverty that devalues life, immobilizes families and communities, and feeds a cycle of failure and futility.”
Open Door’s mission, he explains, is three-fold: “1) to be a source of hope and encouragement for people who need a new start; 2) to be a community hub that links folks to positive and constructive activities; and 3) to be a safe haven where God’s heart for hurting people and struggling families is made real every day.”
Open Door’s initiatives include adult learning; workforce development; life skills training; computer literacy; family services, information and referral.
“We also place a strong emphasis on emergency compassion outreach and strategic community organizing,” Simpson adds. “In the final analysis, we’re convinced that if you help parents and adults with their education, employment, housing and other ‘felt need’ issues, you really are helping the whole family and the larger community.”
Simpson saw that happen when Open Door helped a 45-year-old man find a full-time job for the first time in his life.
“We helped him develop a resume, strengthened his soft skills (appearance habits, ability to fill out forms, communication and motivation skills) and practiced interviewing with him,” Simpson says. “It felt really good to know that we helped him get meaningful employment.”
In spite of the great challenges they face, the people Open Door serves are remarkably proud, resilient, determined and optimistic, Simpson says.
“Most believe life can be better for their families. Nearly all just need a helping hand from someone who cares,” he notes.
Because the need in the community is so great, Simpson describes Open Door’s ministry as a “long-term proposition.”
“Our goal is to not only provide short-term emergency relief, but to also form relationships that can help lead to larger life solutions for those in need,” he says.
It is necessary to build trust in the community, and it takes time for Open Door to be a place people turn to if they need food for the day or simply somebody to talk with, Simpson says.
“We may not be fully resourced, but they can see us work to help them,” he says.
To that end, according to a statement on its web site, Open Doors “works collaboratively with schools, civic groups, businesses, foundations, government agencies, congregations and other nonprofits to identify resources, build community capacity and coordinate solution-focused holistic responses to community needs.”
As part of their mission to offer compassion and encouragement to hurting people, Open Door provides limited “emergency” food, clothing and financial assistance to families in crisis. Like other nonprofits, Open Door can keep its doors open only through the generosity of others.
“It is only through the donations of food, clothing and financial support from our many friends and partners that we are able to provide emergency assistance,” Simpson says. “Because we greatly appreciate their generosity, we make every attempt to be good stewards of our emergency relief resources.
Sometimes that generosity takes the form encouraging others to help, Simpson adds.
“Never underestimate your influence with others,” he says. “Many of our current individual and congregational donors first became interested in supporting Open Door because someone encouraged them to get involved.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Baker is the national correspondent for BaptistLIFE, newsjournal of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware.)