Poor Miami: More Good Ideas

According to these folks, there's hope for America's most impoverished city

Come up with low-interest government loans for emergencies. For example, to fix your car if you need a new transmission so you can get to work. Or money to move into a new apartment for deposits, moving trucks, and connection fees. This could be repaid at $100 per month.

Turn that crummy crackhead Bicentennial Park in downtown Miami into an open-air movie theater and fun park for families with free parking, grills, basketball courts -- a place to hang out for people and their children. And have street parties there and meetings that everyone could attend and make suggestions on how to improve our city.

Three cheers for FIU's poverty fighters (from left): Ginelle Nelson, Alicia Pichirilo, Marika Krausova, Maureen Muhlena, Bianca Escorcia
Steve Satterwhite
Three cheers for FIU's poverty fighters (from left): Ginelle Nelson, Alicia Pichirilo, Marika Krausova, Maureen Muhlena, Bianca Escorcia

Another response to "We're Number One!" came from Maureen Muhlena, a senior at Florida International University. Instead of offering a specific solution, she and a group of fellow students offered themselves as volunteers. As part of FIU's Student Honors Mentor Program, Muhlena and a dozen others, with assistance from a faculty advisor, formed a group they called "We the People." They were volunteers in search of a project until Muhlena marched into a meeting with a copy of "We're Number One!"

"I brought in New Times and said, 'Look! We're the number-one poorest city in America. Let's do something about it.' So we decided to do a poverty-awareness week."

After distributing flyers and stirring up interest at the school's University Park campus, their project hit full stride Monday and Tuesday, November 25 and 26. In the Graham student center Muhlena and her cohorts set up a display at the "pit," a kind of stage area strategically located along a busy hallway. Two easels held grim statistics about Miami's poverty; on a third photographs provided graphic representations. A table manned by student volunteers was loaded with material: information about local organizations involved in fighting poverty, pamphlets explaining "living wage" laws, even a specific and helpful list: "Ten Things You Can Do to Make a Difference."

Not content to passively await curious students, Muhlena and crew drew crowds by performing cheers in the spirit of "We're Number One!" complete with flash cards and routines: "Give me a P. Give me an O. Give me a V...." It worked. "When we started cheering, that's when most people came over to the table," Muhlena recounts. "A lot of people responded."

During a meeting last week to assess their effectiveness, the students decided they had been successful in spreading the word about Miami's ignominious claim to fame. It was so effective, in fact, they're going to do it again in January, at the start of the new semester. Muhlena will spearhead that effort too. "In the beginning of poverty-awareness week, we issued a mission statement: We wanted to raise awareness on the FIU campus, and we wanted to let people know ways to help. Did we achieve that? Yes, we felt we did. Students reacted: 'Wow! We're the poorest? We're really glad to see you doing something about this.'"

The mayor of America's poorest big city, Manny Diaz, issued his own mission statement in late September. While stopping short of declaring all-out war on Miami's poverty, Diaz did announce four promising initiatives:

A "financial literacy" campaign to inform the city's poorest about federal tax rebates and other benefits.

Incentives for poor families to save money by adding matching funds to their savings accounts. (One million dollars in public money has been earmarked for this, with more anticipated from private sources.)

A microlending program for small-business entrepreneurs.

A task force on poverty that is supposed to become a permanent feature of city government.

According to Javier Fernandez, policy advisor to Mayor Diaz, good progress has been made thus far with the financial-literacy campaign, fair progress has been made with the savings and microlending programs, but virtually nothing yet has been done regarding formation of the task force. Which is unfortunate as the task force would seem to be the one component open to ordinary citizens who want to volunteer their time. If you're among those people, Fernandez invites you to call him at 305-250-5313. Of course, if the mayor really wanted to jump-start that task force, he'd pick up the phone and call the twelve people I included here. They've already demonstrated their willingness to work and their compassion for Miami's poor.

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