Life when you're not just poor, but deeply poor

PDEEP17 Brandy Price plays with her son, Quran Sanders, left, 2, and her nephew Khaliff Young, 5, behind her, in the backyard at Helping Hand Rescue Mission in Philadelphia, Pa. on Tuesday, March 15, 2016. Price recently obtained her GED with the help of tutors at Helping Hand. (TRACIE VAN AUKEN/ For the Inquirer)
PDEEP17 Brandy Price plays with her son, Quran Sanders, left, 2, and her nephew Khaliff Young, 5, behind her, in the backyard at Helping Hand Rescue Mission in Philadelphia, Pa. on Tuesday, March 15, 2016. Price recently obtained her GED with the help of tutors at Helping Hand. (TRACIE VAN AUKEN/ For the Inquirer) (Philadelphia Inquirer)
Posted: March 25, 2016

Last week, Brandy Price painted her living room wall bright red. She labored an entire night, slathering on the startling color.

For Price, it confers a small measure of beauty and beats back the everyday gray of life in the North Philadelphia Housing project called Penn Town.

Price, 27, a single mother of three, lives in deep poverty, an extreme level of privation that makes her twice as poor as a person struggling in mere poverty.

Deeply poor people have next to nothing. Unable to afford a Christmas tree last year, Price taped a photograph of one on a wall, so Santa had something to shoot for.

Putting up the photo, like painting the wall, was a small move Price made to stay buoyant in circumstances that would crush all but the strongest spirits.

"The red wall," she said, "gives me life."

Despite endless hardships, Price, who had dropped out of 10th grade, amazed herself and others recently by getting a high school diploma online.

Owning no computer, she used her cellphone to do the work.

Price had help from two mentors - a North Philadelphia minister who is a former professional athlete, and an adjunct professor who used to dispatch Radnor police. Each recognized that Price had a good brain, then challenged her to use it.

Things like this don't usually happen in the bottom precincts of deep poverty, where life mostly runs downhill.

And it's not that Price has solved all her problems.

But she's proven something to herself, finding the grit to thrive.

The Spring Garden Apartments sits barrackslike in the shadow of the statue of Edgar Allan Poe's black raven, its wings spread in dark perpetuity at the national historic site up North Seventh Street.

Outside the apartments, flowering trees defy expectation: Spring gets here?

The Philadelphia Housing Authority, which runs the place, does not call the apartments a housing project. But the people who live there do.

Penn Town is Brandy Price's world, an outpost on the border between those who have and those who don't.

It's just a block from the gentrifying geography of Northern Liberties, where houses worth $600,000 apiece are rising.

Price grew up deeply poor, one of six children born in North Philadelphia. Her father wasn't around. Extreme poverty is intergenerational, experts say, bequeathed without ceremony from mother to child like a sack of rocks.

In Philadelphia, 186,000 people live in deep poverty, 12.3 percent of the population, federal data show. That number, along with the city's overall 26 percent poverty rate, are the highest recorded among the nation's 10 most populous cities, according to the data. A family of four is in poverty if it has a cash income of around $24,000; deep poverty for that same family is $12,000 or less.

Price's family moved nearly every two years, one Section 8 apartment after another. At 16, she was living with her family in a shelter, assaulted by the noise and lack of privacy. By 19, Price was pregnant with her daughter Sumyah, now 8, and working at McDonald's after dropping out of high school - not an unusual circumstance for young neighborhood women.

The criticism, endlessly repeated, is that unmarried women are self-saboteurs who engineer their own misery by getting pregnant.

It's not that simple, experts say. Teens in deep poverty aren't like suburban kids who plan for college and a future. For the latter group, pregnancy would derail so much.

For those in deep poverty, though, there's not a lot going on to thwart. "You think, 'Nothing's out there for me, so why not have a kid?' " said Neeta Fogg, an economist at Drexel University's Center for Labor Markets and Policy.

She added, "In your environment, no one you know is going to college. Having a kid is not a big deal, and everybody is doing it."

But once they get pregnant, Fogg said, "problems mushroom into big barriers they can't overcome, and then they pass them on to their kids, and it becomes a trap from which they can't escape.

"It is heartbreaking."

Fighting to do better, Price took classes in saving money and managing a household around seven years ago.

She got a housekeeping job at a hotel, then was let go. That's common, said Fogg, explaining that people in deep poverty take the kinds of jobs that are easily lost with an absence over a sick child, or a misunderstanding with a supervisor.

"They are on the brink of joblessness even while working," Fogg said.

Price got another job at a packing plant, but lost it after getting sick.

She met Tyron Sanders, an out-of-work 26-year-old who lives with his mother in Germantown, and the couple had two children, Tyron, 4, and Quran, 2. They have been together for eight years.

Price moved into Penn Town in 2009 and pays $133 a month in rent, utilities included.

Her $500 monthly welfare check, along with $600 a month in food stamps (now called SNAP benefits), keeps the family alive. But welfare isn't forever, and Price has to work for it with community-service jobs, like doing housekeeping part-time at a senior center.

Her regret was never finishing high school, and it might have remained a lifelong sorrow, if she hadn't one day picked up a copy of The Cat in the Hat.

Adam Bruckner is treasured in Penn Town, where he's called "Mr. Adam."

An athletic 40-year-old who helps the homeless and once played for the now-defunct Philadelphia KiXX professional soccer team, Bruckner is a nondenominational minister at Helping Hands Rescue Mission, steps from Penn Town. He does so much for the poor, President George W. Bush gave him an award in January 2009.

The mission's youth director, Bruckner was running a homework program when he met Price.

"Take these books and read them to Sumyah," Bruckner said. "We want her to be a great reader someday."

"I want to be a great reader someday," Price mumbled.

"Brandy," Bruckner said, acting on a hunch. "Read this."

Price opened The Cat in the Hat and stumbled over every word. Bruckner called Joe Oaster.

An adjunct sociology professor at Harcum College and an educator who teaches computer software to the medical staff within the University of Pennsylvania health system, Oaster runs literacy programs in housing projects. It's a kind of calling for him, a need to help.

A former civilian police dispatcher, he lives in Ridley Township, Delaware County, and met Bruckner four years ago at Calvary Chapel of Delaware County in Chadds Ford, Oaster's church.

Bruckner told Oaster there was a woman he knew who was too bright to be nearly illiterate. Would he get involved?

Once a week for three years, Oaster traveled to the mission to help pull Price through the 10th, 11th, and 12th grades.

"Brandy and I went through 89 online courses together," Oaster said. " Tenacious is the word I would use for her. She had so much going on in her life, but she just stuck it out. I love her and I bawled when she completed the work."

Bruckner added, "She did the work on her phone, without a computer. Brandy is a great story. She worked her butt off and got a diploma - not a GED."

Price, with an easy smile and a gentle manner, said the "happiest memory" of her life is of Mr. Adam and Oaster helping her read.

"I feel so good that I completed the program," she said.

Price was acting on a wild urge when she painted the wall in her home red.

In her dreams, she becomes a fashion designer or an interior decorator. She has this spark, she said, a flair. The wall communicates that.

Now Price needs work. Her diploma gives her more of a chance than she had. But is it enough?

"I always search for work," she said. "I do want better. But it can be rough. Still, I keep hoping."

alubrano@phillynews.com

215-854-4969@AlfredLubrano

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