Antanisha Garrett likes it in Elmira.
“Coming from a fast paced state like New Jersey, it’s really different," she said. "You can really come here and get your life together.”
Garrett has tried to do just that. She’s lived in the Southern Tier off-and-on for several years. But she’s now in Elmira full-time. It’s where she’s raising her daughter, who was born last year. "She’s going to be my best friend when I get older," Garrett said.
Garrett called her daughter a bright spot in a life that hasn’t always been full of them. Garrett spent eight months in jail, but didn’t want to name the crime. "It’s so funny because I call it a beautiful nightmare," she added. "I got my head right in there."
She's now looking for a job to support her family, and it hasn't been easy.
A city of struggle
Garrett is one of many people in Elmira who are struggling economically. The median household income is about $30,000.
Last year, New York State awarded Elmira $1 million to fight poverty. It's part of the Empire State Poverty Reduction Initiative. The city was one of 16 communities to receive the funding.
$1 million isn’t a lot of money for a city like Elmira. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about a third of Elmira residents live in poverty.
To devise a plan to maximize the money, Elmira formed a panel of area leaders. Among them are heads of charities, elected officials and a school superintendent.
The group wants to attack poverty from three angles. One, they want to make the programs that are already in place easier to navigate. That means expanding hours and teaching people how to access services.
Two, they want to fund housing repairs. Susan Payne is an economic development consultant on the Elmira panel. She said there are several problems with housing.
“Cleanliness, environmental issues, having windows that close in the winter time so cold air isn’t coming through,” Payne said.
The third focus is employment. Making it easier for people to get jobs and then excel at those jobs.
Jobs, Jobs, Jobs
The need for a good job is definitely something Antonisha Garrett can relate to. It hasn’t been the easiest thing to get.
“I finished nursing school in New Jersey. I got sent to jail because of that crime and then, after that, I got pregnant two months after I got home," Garrett said. "And then, during the process of me being pregnant, I just transformed into this whole woman, but I still had this charge lingering on my back.”
Since then, Garrett said she’s applied and applied for jobs, but it’s tough to get past the interview. She said that's usually when her record gets brought up.
“Give me a job that I can sustain myself, take care of my child, where I don’t have to go into the system or anything like that,” Garrett said.
The poverty panel wants to help people get jobs, but a task force can’t make an employer hire someone with a record. Payne said those issues are handled at the city, county or state government level.
“A lot of the issues you just mentioned are regulatory and legal issues that we don’t have a lot of control over at the local level,” Payne said.
And whatever Elmira wishes to do is just that ... a wish list. The state needs to approve the plan before the city finds out how much it will have to spend on each idea.
In the meantime, Garrett said she has some help. She’s big into the group Mothers Helping Mothers. It’s a non-profit that connects mothers to each other for things like rides, child care, or just some advice. In fact, Garrett's own mother runs Elmira’s chapter.
“The mothers of the organization are phenomenal women," Garrett said. "And they’re older, so they love to help me anyway.”
As for the help that could come from this poverty initiative, the state told local leaders that they’ll hear back “soon."