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  • Thrive Detroit

Micro-enterprise opportunities: a key component in fighting poverty

Poverty is the by-product of economic inequalities that are sustained by any number of social problems pervasive in our society.   The lack of equal opportunities has effectively created social margins where people in crisis are pushed to the economic edge.  In a society where members are stratified by wealth and influence, those who live in poverty are perceived as deservingly powerless and ultimately abandoned to accept their temporary crises as permanent.

When it comes to making decisions on how to eliminate poverty, a major challenge is the fact that everyone—from the constituent to the politician—brings their own past experiences, unique perspectives, perceptions and prejudices to the table.  This is both a blessing and a curse.  A blessing if we seek to expand our understanding by connecting our experience with those of others; a curse if we are arrogant enough to believe that our experience is the only one that matters.

One person’s view of poverty may have been shaped virtually, based solely upon heartbreaking images from infomercials, scenes from movies or documentaries.  Another’s view may be shaped by real life experiences, or through interactions with people in their city, in their neighborhood, or in their family.

While residents in some cities may have only a ‘virtual’ exposure to poverty, Detroit has experienced it first-hand with one of the highest rates in the nation.   Over thirty-four percent of Detroit residents live in poverty.  In fact, a close-up view of poverty can not be avoided for those who live, work, or play within the city limits.   Despite the high poverty rate, this percentage does not take into account the households whose income levels are slightly below the poverty level – nor does it include the working poor whose incomes may be slightly higher, but still low enough to keep them in crisis.

From November 2009 to July 2012, I directed a short-term federally funded Recovery Act program to help prevent homelessness in Detroit and create permanency by reducing the length of time individuals remained in crisis housing and emergency shelters.   The response was overwhelming.  Hundreds of people regularly flooded the phone lines and COTS Mid-TownDetroit facility for assistance.

Individuals seeking help through the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Rehousing Program (HPRP) were in no way stereotypical.  Some were full-time employees who found themselves unemployed and without benefits after many years of work; some held four-year degrees; others were simply tired of living in crisis mode and needed help to find their way out.

We held regular information sessions and provided community resource information as well as financial literacy workshops for all applicants.  Without fail, there were individuals whose short term goals were to seek employment while their long terms goals were to create their own business venture for long term sustainability.  These individuals understood that, through hard work, business ownership would create greater opportunities for self-sufficiency, despite the barriers.

Low-to-zero income, low credit scores, and lack of collateral were some of the obvious barriers.  Moreover, the need for basic business training was also an issue for some, but not all.  Notwithstanding the challenges, there was no shortage of high-hopes, drive, and capacity.

Although none of the program participants could obtain funding through conventional means, some had attempted to operate small ventures on their own to generate enough household income to keep them out of crisis.  Others expressed their determination to become entrepreneurs once they were able to overcome known obstacles.

With this in mind, I founded Thrive Detroit L3C  as a way to provide micro-enterprise opportunities for low-income individuals.  Using the internationally successful street paper model, Thrive Detroit Street Paper was launched in November 2011, through a generous gift from 1Matters and a micro-loan from Kiva Detroit.   Our second enterprise—set to launch in September 2012—is through a partnership with a local business franchise.

While the number of Detroit’s residents living below the poverty level is sobering, in some way it has contributed to our sensitivity towards the marginalized and our desire to create paths to inclusivity.

We all agree that poverty needs to be defeated.   We don’t all agree on the best way to defeat it.  Hopefully society will continue to explore the creation of economic opportunities as one of the paths to inclusion.   The reasons for poverty are varied and complex, but the solutions don’t have to be.

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