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Bottom Up 

Local agencies help increasing numbers of Tucsonans, young and old, rise from poverty

Having already experienced several of life's hard knocks, 28-year-old Victoria Summers has a suggestion for some of today's teenagers. "They should pull their heads out of their butts and stay in school," she passionately declares.

Tucson native Summers remembers that as a youth she didn't follow that advice. Thus, she is now one of the tens of thousands of people in the community living in poverty.

"I was going to do what I wanted to do, and I did," Summers recalls of her teenage years. "I wanted to hang out and be cool."

As a result, eighth grade was her last year of education and she was a mother by 18. Despite that, she got a job for a local construction company that paid well.

With the dramatic slowdown in home building and the threat of layoffs at the company, Summers says she left to go to work for a mailing service. That job didn't pay nearly as much and Summers had problems finding adequate daycare for her two young children. Eventually, she was let go.

Trying to reconcile with her husband, Summers moved to Oklahoma, but things didn't work out. Last year she returned to town in a serious state of depression.

"I hid away in the dark for a while," she remembers. "But I pulled myself out of that."

After coming back to Tucson, Summers says she looked for work unsuccessfully. "I put in more applications than I can count," she explains, "but I couldn't even get a job at McDonald's."

Then things began to turn around, a change for which Summers gives a lot of credit to her church—Azusa World Ministries.

After staying in shelters run by the nonprofit Primavera Foundation, as well as the Salvation Army, Summers and her children are now receiving food stamps and living in an apartment paid for by Primavera.

In addition, Summers is enrolled in a Pima Community College program and hopes to eventually land a clerical job. Planning on also getting a high school equivalency diploma, Summers realizes, "I'll have to work my way up from the bottom."

With its only income being public assistance, Summers' household is one of more than 11,000 in metropolitan Tucson headed by a single woman with children who is earning less than the federal poverty level. For Summers and her two kids, that means an income below $18,310 a year.

Due in part to the economic downturn, in Tucson the percentage of poor female-led households with a child under five years of age went from 49 to almost 53 percent between 2005 and 2008, according to recent estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Another group of people whose poverty numbers increased during that same period was the elderly. The percentage of 65-year-old and older people earning less than the federal poverty level jumped from 6.6 in 2005 to 10.3 in 2008.

One member of this age group is 73-year-old Alice Cartwright, who didn't want her real name used. Profiled in an earlier article (see "Not-So-Golden Years," Dec. 25, 2008), Cartwright is still working, and still trying to deal with harassing collection calls from credit card companies seeking payment for her seriously ill partner's earlier charges.

But Cartwright also had some financial assistance during the last year in the form of a one-year mortgage loan modification program. "Hopefully it will continue," she says, "since it saves me between $300 and $400 a month."

Cartwright does have a car, something Summers can't afford. So Summers sometimes borrows her father's vehicle, other times taking the bus to class or to drop her kids off at school.

Denise Medina is another bus rider who just started on a path of economic improvement, thanks in part to the Youth On Their Own program.

The 21-year-old recently began a job for a service provider as a custodian in a downtown courthouse. Her $9-per-hour salary means her income will exceed the federal annual poverty level of $10,830 for an individual.

But many other unrelated individuals in Tucson haven't been so fortunate. The percentage of them 15 years and older living in poverty increased from less than 23 percent in 2005 to almost 28 percent three years later.

Not having received her first paycheck as of last week, Medina says she has only $19 in the bank. Fortunately for her she received some financial help from friends as well as being involved with a rental assistance program.

When she gets her first paycheck, Medina indicates she'll buy food and put some money in the bank. In the long run, though, she'd like to save enough to travel to see her mother and sisters in Kentucky.

One year from now, Medina hopes to have additional savings and be attending childcare classes at Pima Community College. "I'll work hard at everything," she insists, "and won't give up."

For her part, despite her present situation, Summers thinks she'll be doing much better 12 months from now. "I'll have a wonderful job," she says hopefully. "Trust me, in a year it will be a different story."

Youth on Their Own is holding its 15th annual fundraiser, "Talk of the Town," at the Westin La Paloma on Sunday, March 6. Tickets can be obtained by calling 293-1136. To donate to the Primavera Foundation, as the author does, checks can be mailed to 702 S. Sixth Ave., Tucson, AZ, 85701.

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