Poverty is defined as not having enough money to meet basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter. According to the 2011 U.S. census report, roughly 50 percent of Trenton residents are living in poverty. Of the 50 percent of Trenton residents living in poverty, 25 percent of them are children under 18. This causes a major problem in Mercer County community, especially within the school systems. These children growing up in poverty are living without access to technology while their classmates are excelling in every facet of their schoolwork because they have been afforded access to technology. This is called the digital divide, and it is becoming an impending issue in cities across America. As a result, we can see the difference in technology fluidity and aptitude in children as early as grade school. Luckily, there are good people in the world, people who began and are beginning organizations to not only help the community of Trenton but bridge the digital divide children in the community are facing simultaneously. The I Am Trenton Community Foundation was formed in 2007 by a group of individuals united in their passion for the city. The organization has formed a board of trustees who are committed to the mission of making Trenton even better through community engagement, building pride in the city and community-focused giving. Currently, the I Am Trenton Community Foundation is working on closing the digital divide within the community, not wanting any underprivileged children to have to struggle to keep up with classmates. The President of the foundation, Kelly Ingram said, “We connect youth with technology by providing grants to those committed to guiding youth in varying capacities, and by actively working to create collaborations and connecting identified needs with available resources.” The foundation does all it can for the youth of Trenton in terms of helping them gain access to the technology necessary to help them succeed. This was only further reiterated by Ingram, who elaborated on the foundation’s impact on the community. “A volunteer with the Trenton Digital Initiative attended an I Am Trenton fund and friend raiser in October and was connected with eight different community groups which have since provided over 30 computers to Trenton youth,” explained Ingram. Given that the foundation was formed in response to Trenton’s specific needs, the foundation is able to more effectively aid the community by focusing all of its energy and attention on Trenton and the issues that may come up. Longevity within the community and tireless efforts to better the community is what essentially defines the I Am Trenton Organization. In addition, the connection between the I Am Trenton Community Foundation and the city of Trenton will be that much more deepened due to the fact the organization will not be going anywhere anytime soon. “I Am Trenton plans to be a lasting resource that will grow over time, making immediate and lasting contributions to the Trenton community,” Ingram said.
I Am Trenton Community Foundation 122 W State Street Trenton, NJ 08608
Derrick Branch sits at a wooden table in a small room in the back of the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK) cafeteria. The table is lightly stained with ink and paint and covered with craft supplies and half eaten snacks.
He’s going on 51, and his grey skullcap and faded Mets hoodie enhance the specks of white that have peppered his black hair and beard. Even with his signs of age, he flashes a boyish grin and proudly clutches a portrait of a brown and yellow lion that was just painted the day before on that very same table.
“I didn’t look at no picture or nothin’,” he said. “I just remember how a lion looks. My hands was guided by an inner source.”
Branch is one of many artists that have benefitted from the soup kitchen’s Trenton Community A-TEAM (TCAT), an arts program that was founded in 2009. Open to the public, the program offers the local community a chance to compose their own music, poetry, screenplays and writing. The program also offers the opportunity to create original artwork, such as paintings and drawings, in order to provide a creative outlet for those living in poverty or low-income neighborhoods. He participates heavily in the latter, writing poetry, rapping and painting.
Branch was born in 1963 and raised in North Trenton, just a block short of the soup kitchen’s current location. The youngest of ten children, he often struggled to stay afloat amongst his many siblings and the lack of attention from his parents. The lack of stability at home left him grappling with the ability to find an identity, especially during the racial tension he experienced as an African American male. He felt a need to categorize himself in some way.
“I knew I was called a colored boy. I even found out they called me mixed black,” said Branch. “A colored boy had ancestors from Africa, maybe some Native American. Up until I was about nine years old, someone decided to call us black. I’m black and I’m proud. I was like a beatnik from birth. I ain’t goin’ along with the establishment. I got my own thoughts.”
He also struggled with severe acne during his adolescent years, leaving his face scarred and making him selfconscious. He soon withdrew from others, becoming antisocial and disassociating himself from both romantic and platonic relationships.
During this time, however, he began to show the signs of early childhood schizophrenia and began to suffer from delusions. Unable to be properly treated and uneducated about mental illness, he was not aware that his delusions were unusual or harmful, and attributed them to an overactive imagination. He began to use his budding artistic skills to try to purge his delusions.
Art had always played a significant role in Branch’s life. As he struggled with his identity and his mental illness, drawing became a way for Branch to escape and also bond with his large family. He and his brothers would sketch together and read comic books, and Branch looked to his siblings and mother for inspiration. His mother was also an avid storyteller, which enamored Branch and encouraged him to write stories of his own and to portray them in his drawings.
“We always worked as a team,” said Branch. “Nowadays, kids don’t get together with their brothers and sisters. We would have a certain time of day when we were bored, and the next thing we’d know, we’d be sitting around the table and drawing.”
Branch’s favorite artists growing up were cartoonists like Charles Schultz and Stan Lee. As he got older, Branch was inspired by photographs in Playboy magazine. He appreciated the simplicity in cartoons and the explicit detail that he could learn to draw from the photographs.
His efforts, however, went largely unnoticed. He did not receive any outside support or praise for his work, and felt that he was overlooked and rejected. Even though he spent time with his family, much of the attention went to his siblings.
“Nobody believed nothin’,” said Branch. “If I didn’t have my name on the picture, they said, ‘Oh, you didn’t draw that.’ Everyone had done it already, so they focused on them. I thought I was just as good as anybody. But I just couldn’t fit in.”
His problems at home, along with his insecurities and mental illness, led to poor academic performance and eventually an expulsion from high school. Depressed, suicidal and unsure of his future, Branch enlisted in the Army National Guard with hopes of turning his life around. During his service, Branch was exposed to the drug culture amongst his fellow soldiers. After being discharged, he began using drugs heavily.
He became a heavy user of Phencyclidine (PCP), a dissociative drug and hallucinogen that can trigger psychosis and mental illness in individuals who are predisposed. Branch’s underlying schizophrenia was exacerbated by the drug use, and he experienced constant hallucinations and disturbing thoughts that led him to numerous hospitalizations, and lost relationships and jobs.
As Branch wrestled with his mental illness, he created an invisible friend named Lizair. He began drawing her around the age of 13, and she became a replacement for his friendships and real life romantic relationships with women. This also became a defining moment of his artistry.
She went from being a figment of his delusions to a muse for all of his drawings and paintings, appearing in images and being the subject for many of his portraits. His thoughts, fantasies and desires became colors on a canvas as he fought to draw the line between the illusion and reality. At one point, Branch burned one of his portraits with the hopes that Lizair would come to life and marry him.
“I wanted that affection even though it was misplaced and misguided. I needed that. It was much deeper, but that was my biggest battle,” said Branch. “I had a whole scenario of how she came to be. I used to go to that fantasy a lot.”
He returned to Trenton and was hospitalized after a particularly bad episode while living in Detroit, Michigan, where he became convinced that Lizair was following him and wanting to cause him harm.
During his hospitalization, Branch had trouble connecting with his art and did not draw or write for four years. He entered a behavioral and rehabilitation program after his release, and resumed his artwork, performing spoken word and participating in local poetry slams as a way to share his experiences. His poetry elicited a positive response from the audiences he performed for, and he chose to look for other places where he could continue performing and recovering.
Branch was drawn to the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK) while he was trying to maintain sobriety. At the time, he had not necessarily needed to use the program’s services, and would show up periodically out of curiosity. Branch returned one day during a period of relapse to get a meal, and noticed various paintings on the walls that had been drawn by other patrons. He then learned about the budding community of writers and artists that had formed.
“A white haired lady came out and was hanging pictures on the wall,” explained Branch. “I asked her who drew the pictures, and she said one of the people that comes here. She said, ‘We have a thing called the A-Team. Would you like to come and see?’”
One day, Branch encountered a few friends of his who were writing in a back room, and asked a staff member if it could become a regular place for them to write and meet. He was unaware that he was about to be the start of something that would become a huge part of the community.
Shortly thereafter, he formed a band called The Vast I Am, which consisted of several others that he met through the program. They performed locally in Trenton and other parts of central New Jersey.
Branch credits his schizophrenia for giving him a unique and creative ability to draw and write effortlessly. He channels his past and the lingering effects of his illness into his paintings, recalling the detail he would put into drawing Lizair.
“If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have the technique that I have today,” explained Branch. “I always wanted to perfect her. It gave me the desire to have perspective on my work. I have seen drawings that have perspective and they’re more attractive and appealing. I wanted her to be all that.”
Along with his writing and music, Branch has rekindled his love of drawing and painting, and has made up for the lapse of creativity that he encountered while hospitalized. Much of his former art was destroyed during a psychotic episode, and he now works to create pieces that contain positive themes and imagery. He comes to the soup kitchen every week to work on his projects, practice, perform and socialize.
Branch has also made for himself many loving and supportive friendships through his work at the soup kitchen. After spending most of his life seeking out the love and affection he longed for as a child, it appears that Branch has finally found that through TCAT. He has received endless encouragement from the community there, and has been inspired by the people he has met from all walks of life.
“The support was awesome,” said Branch. “Why couldn’t I get this from my family or people around me?”
Branch has also made his artistry a small career, making him less reliant on others for money. His band has received exposure from performing in local bars, and he has turned a profit from selling his paintings. For the first time, Branch feels like he has finally found his place through the program’s opportunities. He wants to give back and inspire others, just as they had done for him.
“I value the experience I have with people, and if I can help someone out with my experiences, the greater the value,” Branch said.
Branch compares himself and his life experiences to how the rest of New Jersey views Trenton negatively, neglecting its rich history and culture. He once found it difficult to view his own hometown and history in a positive light, but soon began to seek out its positive attributes by overlooking the stigmas of the city and his illness. He wants others to shift their negative perceptions and find beauty wherever they can, just as he did through TCAT and his art.
“Life is bigger than it seems. If you focus on negative things, it can drain your mind completely and you can’t see nothin’ but negativity,” Branch stressed. “But if you think positively, you train your mind to focus on the positive side and you see wondrous things.”
Being in a small space is something that no one should ever go through. Small spaces are not conducive to work, play, or relaxation. Living in a motel as a teenager, I was always on edge. There wasn’t any space for me to be by myself, unless I went outside. And that’s exactly what I did — I went outside. Being outside by myself with my CD player and books meant I could just unwind for a few minutes. Being in that small space was tortuous. When my family moved from the Red Roof Inn on Route 1 South to our apartment on Connecticut Avenue in Hamilton, N.J., everything was perfect. There was so much more room to move around, I couldn’t believe it. After spending years in small rooms that could barely hold everything we owned (stored in large coolers and bags), moving to Connecticut Avenue was an oasis filled with cool, refreshing water that I could drink from and swim in. The first night there was beautiful. There was so much more space. All of us didn’t have to sleep in the same room like we had done for years. The first night, we all slept in the same room because we didn’t have any beds, just a couch. I remember the smell of my mom attacking the place with Lysol cleaning supplies. My brother had gone to the HomeFront teen program that first night, and so it was just my mom, my sister and I hanging out and talking. We made a pallet on the floor. We didn’t have a television that first night, but the fact that we would be a little more comfortable from now on made things much more tolerable. Later on, we got beds. My sister and I marveled at all the room we had and how great we felt. Finally, a whole bed to sleep in! At the Red Roof, there was one bed that I shared with my mom and sister. My brother slept in a sleeping bag on the floor. We had more options for food. When you’re homeless, you can only eat and drink so much because you might not have a refrigerator to keep food cool or a microwave to warm things up. At the Red Roof, we had both, but not all the rooms were like that. We didn’t have home-cooked meals like pork chops or meat loaf. We ordered pizza or went to McDonald’s if things were going well, but that was very rare. We couldn’t keep ice cream cold in the mini-fridge, so that was never an option. The first month living on Connecticut Avenue was surreal. I was enrolled in the local high school and reconnected with some old friends. I made a few new ones, as well. I had a neighborhood where I could wander about, and I began walking everywhere. I got to sit outside when the weather was nice and I had friends who lived near me who visited often. Generally, I was much happier. I finally had space to myself to do the things I wanted to do. I kept in touch with HomeFront (I met them when I was at the Pine Motel in Bordentown in 2004) and still went to different activities that were offered over the course of the week. Being in a bigger space made me feel safer. It made me feel safer because I had a little more privacy. And even when my sister was in the room we shared, listening to her music out loud, I didn’t mind. Sometimes we talked about different things, but mostly we were in our own heads in the same space. I had my headphones and notebook, and she had her music and books; or we watched television. Things were OK. We got our first computers on Connecticut Avenue. I remember being really happy to get my computer, a MacBook, and learning how to get it up and running. My mom got a PC for the family, and I helped her, but with my limited computer knowledge, I received a lot of guidance from technical support. It was fun working the computers. The first month in a new place was equal parts exciting and terrifying. Sometimes I wondered if we would end up in a place like the Red Roof again. Other times I thought about other things. I don’t live on Connecticut Avenue anymore, but I won’t ever be able to forget the time I spent there, particularly the first month. An apartment has more space to move around and store things. There are opportunities for privacy in the apartment — these opportunities are not available in a small, crowded motel room. Depending on how much stuff you have when you’re in the motel room, the space there will automatically go to holding your items. There is no room for a child to play, for a teenager to carve a space of her own from. It is a sad place to live for an extended period of time.
Congress has passed the final fiscal year 2016 (FY 2016) budget allocated to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). According to their official website, HUD is “focused on helping to secure quality housing for Americans, ending homelessness, making our communities more resilient from natural disasters, protecting people from housing discrimination and providing rental housing assistance for millions of extremely poor Americans.” For 2016, HUD’s budget, approved by Congress, is about $47.2 billion — about 2.3 billion less than President Obama’s proposal, but two million more than the previous year’s budget. In a hearing on the “FY 2016 Budget Request for the Department of Housing and Urban Development,” the secretary of HUD, Julian Castro, notes in written testimony that “[increases in HUD funding] are provided to protect vulnerable families, reverse the effects of sequestration (cuts in HUD funding), [and] make significant progress toward the goal of ending homelessness.” Secretary Castro also stressed HUD’s initiative to support community-centered investments, including “funding to revitalize neighborhoods with distressed HUD-assisted housing and concentrated poverty.” Such goals and principles are illustrated in the budget’s summary, found on HUD’s website. The budget ensures there are sufficient monetary resources to support community improvements, including a $170 million expansion of Choice Neighborhoods. The Choice Neighborhoods program supports locally driven strategies to address struggling neighborhoods. In response to the needs of the surrounding neighborhoods, Choice Neighborhoods allocates money to help replace distressed public housing with “mixed income housing,” which is often represented as building apartment complexes that would provide a stable “mixed” income to the area. HUD also aims to expand housing mobility through its increased funding for voucher programs. About two billion dollars are set aside for the Housing Choice Voucher Program to help approximately 2.4 million low-income families afford decent housing in neighborhoods of their choice. In addition to supporting all existing vouchers, the budget provides funding to restore approximately 67,000, many of which were lost in 2013 due to sequestration — $3 billion cuts from HUD’s FY2013 budget. Secretary Castro also emphasized that HUD’s mission is not to provide temporary relief and housing, but to provide opportunity and a platform of positive economic growth going forward. The $100 million request for Jobs-Plus seeks to increase employment opportunities and earnings of public housing residents. According to HUD, this “welfare-to-work demonstration” is marketed toward “able-bodied,
working-age resident at a public housing development in each of the following five cities: Baltimore, Chattanooga, Dayton, Los Angeles and St. Paul.” The program aims to combine employment services, rent-based work incentives and community support for work. The budget also provides for many other services, including a Youth Homelessness Demonstration Project with the goal of ending and preventing homelessness for youth and young adults, as well as other grants targeting community and agricultural development in rural areas to improve economic growth. To insure that HUD has the resources to study the effectiveness of such programs, $35 million is allotted to HUD’s Office of Policy Development and Research (PD&R), which HUD states is “responsible for maintaining current information on housing needs, market conditions and existing programs, as well as conducting
research on priority housing and community development issues.” With the exception of Jobs Plus, these programs are available to the 50 states. New Jersey, however, is one of 13 states that received additional aid from HUD. A part of HUD’s 2016 Budget, $1 billion was allotted for storm resiliency projects in the wake of the 2013 Super Storm Hurricane Sandy. According to POLITICO New Jersey, funds were allotted to 13 states based on a rigorous, multiphase application process. New York State received the most at $35.8 million, not including the $176 million that was already allotted to NYC. New Jersey came in last, with a mere $15 million in federal funding. Secretary Castro cites the lack of diligence by Governor Christie’s administration in completing the proper documentation as the reason for New Jersey’s meager funds. But things are still looking up for New Jersey. As the deadline to request hurricane relief aid for 2017 approaches in September, New Jersey has another chance of securing the relief aid it needs As of now, New Jersey’s statistics suggest a positive trend. According to a report released by Monarch Housing Associates, the total homeless population in New Jersey has been decreasing over the last five years at an average rate of 7.6 percent. Hopefully, with HUDs’ budget greater than ever, 2016 has the potential to see even greater drops in homelessness.
Housing and Urban Development For general questions about HUD, please contact the State office located in Newwark.
Communities across the nation have been affected by homelessness for years, with people living in shelters and others in the streets. The Trenton area is no exception to this reality, where a large percentage of its people living without a place to call home, many for long periods at a time. Fortunately, Trenton and Mercer County have developed programs and initiatives to provide support for those living through the struggles and hardships of homelessness. One of these initiatives is the Coordinated Entry and Assessment System for Homeless Individuals, CEASe, which focuses its efforts on helping those in the Trenton community, in particular. The CEASe system is currently being run through the CEAS Center. This center assesses the status of individuals experiencing homelessness and acts as the point of entry into housing and permanent residency. “We’ve targeted the most vulnerable people in the [homeless] community,” says Janet Porter, the supervisor of the CEAS Center. Those who fit the criteria that CEASe has in place are granted housing. Individuals under assessment must be chronically homeless — meaning they have been homeless for an extended period of time and/ or disabled. These mandates are set so that those who need the support urgently receive it quickly. Currently the CEAS Center receives patrons from agencies throughout Mercer County such as the Rescue Mission of Trenton, where hundreds of individuals experiencing homelessness are sheltered and cared for. The CEAS Center also partners with the Mercer County Department of Human Services, the Mercer County Board of Social Services, The City of Trenton Department of Health and Human
Services, and Mercer Alliance to End Homelessness. The main priority of CEASe is to filter through potential clients, and to provide housing to those with the most need. An important aspect of the process ensures that the housing is varied for every patron and that it meets his or her individual needs. This housing is founded by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Many of the patrons coming from these shelters are accustomed to the community-based settings that they promote. And for this reason, the CEAS Center and its partner organizations work to make the transition into housing an easy and comforting process for the client. To ensure a smooth transition, clients are provided with support housing. “Many of these people have to have support and it is important that we meet the client’s needs,” said Porter. Additionally, Porter explained that the homeless community has a large majority of disabled individuals — some mentally disabled and others physically disabled — who need help feeling safe and healthy. The CEAS Center works to provide support housing and services that cater to the individual needs of its clients. As of now, the CEASe initiative is still developing and taking steps to expand its efforts across the Mercer County area. According to Porter, the CEAS Center only accepts patrons who are referred to it from shelters like Rescue Mission; it also hopes to expand and help those living on the streets, as well. The organization is making strides and to ensure it continues to progress, it is being evaluated by the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS).
Written with and for individuals experiencing homelessness in the Trenton, New Jersey area.