How we address poverty depends on how we see it

Over the past few years, many people in Frederick County have been discussing and debating poverty, in general, and homelessness, in particular.

Among other things, the discussions reveal that the way people view the basic problems substantially shapes the strategies and solutions they support.

I encourage you to read this short and articulate explanation of how poverty is viewed by many of us:

Our Perceptions About the “Unworthy Poor” Haven’t Changed
by Serena Rice Posted on August 20, 2015

I think it can help us better understand why so many poverty programs fail and why others work.

It often comes down to a simple question: Is the focus on the process or the recipient? When we operate on the assumption that some people deserve to be poor, then we focus on processes and develop programs that cost-efficiently deliver whatever minimum level of service we think the poor are worth, while minimizing waste and fraud.

We even measure success by the efficiency of these processes. For example, we count how many people we feed in a soup kitchen or a food bank. We count how many we shelter or house.


When we focus on the recipient, on the other hand, success is measured by how self-sufficient that person becomes. It isn’t just providing shelter or housing or finding a job or getting sober or clean: It’s helping someone stand on their own — however they found themselves in unfortunate or desperate circumstances.

It’s called person-centered and it requires intensive case management. Person-centered models take much greater time and resource commitments than service- and process-centered models usually do. They are thought to be more expensive. For example, an acceptable client-to-caseworker ratio is about 24:1 in process-centered models. Best practices in intensive case management models, on the other hand, call for a 10:1 or 12:1 ratio. This lower ratio allows caseworkers to form closer relationships with their clients.

In the long run, however, person-centered models actually cost less. For example, Housing First is a person-centered model. Utah realized about a 50% overall savings using Housing First. The New Yorker, The Guardian, The Boston Globe and others have run stories on Housing First’s efficacy.


There are hundreds of programs all over the country that are successfully using these models to help people create the opportunities for themselves that are vital for making good choices. This is the “hand-up” we keep hearing about, the programs we keep seeing on our Facebook and Twitter feeds.

And right here in Frederick County, nonprofit organizations such as Advocates for Homeless Families, Habitat for Humanity, and a few county agencies, use person-centered models. So do all of the dozens of youth mentoring programs that have formed to fill an overwhelming county need.

These programs work primarily because of the relationships they form, relationships that allow people to have hope. It’s so much easier to feel hope when you’ve got someone at your side who is on your side.

We could be doing more of this.

The wonderful thing about Frederick County is that our community genuinely cares about the less fortunate among us, as seen in the generosity of so many people giving freely of their time and money. As a community, we have to decide how best to use this generosity. To answer that, we have to decide whether we believe our poor are worthy. And to make that decision, we only have to ask ourselves whether we believe people can change.

Not only do I believe that people can change, I believe that, as a community, we have a duty to help anyone who wants to. The Purple Moon Project, Inc. was founded on this belief and on the understanding that feeling hope is the most powerful impetus for change.

purplemoonprojectlogo300wThe Purple Moon Project is really Frederick’s idea because it was incubated right here, by the community itself. I didn’t know very much about social work or poverty when I started thinking about this, so I asked questions of anyone who would meet with me. To understand the scope of the poverty problem and how we as a community address it, I met with sector- and thought-leaders, people in the trenches and on the funding side, people who needed help and people who offered help. The Purple Moon Project is an amalgam of everything I learned from those conversations, my subsequent research, and my time working directly with people with the dual challenges of mental health and substance use issues.

These are our core assumptions:

  1. No person wants to live trapped in poverty and hopelessness.
  2. Each person’s situation is unique and requires a unique solution.
  3. Each person is the expert on his or her own situation and needs.
  4. Each person manages their own process with the support of mentors.
  5. Participation – as a person or as a mentor — is voluntary and can end at any time for any reason.

In the jargon, Purple Moon Project is a person-centered, evidence-based, outcome-oriented process that provides a mentor/navigator equipped with innovative, powerful skills to help people find their own way to economic self-sufficiency. In plain English, it means we help each individual develop and execute a plan that will work for them. We use proven techniques that empower people toward more self-confidence and self-efficacy, and we work with them on not just one of their challenges, but their overall circumstances and challenges — because we will be successful only when each person achieves their goals.

As a community, we stand at a crossroads: We can act as if certain people simply deserve to be poor, or we can decide that every person has the capacity to change. If we believe circumstances and people can change, then we, as a community, have an obligation — and an opportunity — to do what we can to help.

Craig Tyler, Executive Director

The Purple Moon Project, Inc.

For more information on The Purple Moon Project, visit
Our Perceptions About the “Unworthy Poor” Haven’t Changed
August 20, 2015
by Serena Rice

VOX Policy and Politics
Giving housing to the homeless is three times cheaper than leaving them on the streets
February 4, 2015
by Matthew Yglesias

Mother Jones
Room for Improvement
March/April Issue
by Scott Carrier

The New Yorker
Home Free?
September 22, 2014
by James Surowiecki

The Guardian
Housing First: the ‘counterintuitive’ method for solving urban homelessness
Despite the global recession, homelessness in cities around the world is falling. Can a controversial strategy to give homeless people a roof first – that is, before addressing drug abuse or mental health – take the credit?
October 20, 2014
by Billy Briggs

Boston Globe
First things first
‘Housing first,’ a radical new approach to ending chronic homelessness, is gaining ground in Boston.
June 24, 2007
by Florence Graves and Hadar Sayfan