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Amidst Prosperity, Many In Silver Spring Struggle To Survive

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Queenie Featherstone lost her apartment four years ago when her work hours were cut.  She's hopeful she'll have a home of her own again soon.
Tara Boyle/WAMU
Queenie Featherstone lost her apartment four years ago when her work hours were cut. She's hopeful she'll have a home of her own again soon.

Ask most Silver Spring residents, and they'll tell you their community’s downtown has come a long way over the past decade.

These days, you can find all sorts of restaurants there, serving everything from jumbo diver scallops to lamb tartare. You can hit up the farmer’s market on Saturdays for organic apples and gourmet goat cheese. You can swing by the AFI Silver to catch an indie film, or — just next door — catch a live performance in Round House Theater’s black box.

But many of those amenities are increasingly out of reach for residents living at the bottom of the economic ladder, people like 54-year-old Queenie Featherstone. Four years ago, Featherstone’s job cut her hours, right around the same time that her rent went up. Suddenly, her apartment cost $1,000 a month, and she was only bringing in $600.

Eventually, she was evicted, and she’s been couch surfing or sleeping in her car ever since.

“I stay with dear friends and family who open their homes because they know I’m a decent person,” Featherstone says. “I’m not on drugs, I'm not on alcohol, I'm in my right mind. It’s just the way the situation fell.”

That “situation” has also meant working multiple part-time jobs in the hope that soon she'll make enough money to have her own apartment again.

“I'm a parent educator for Montgomery County Schools. I work retail. If a job calls me for temp work, I'll go!" Featherstone says. "Because hard work never killed anyone, as they say.”

A common story after recession

Ask the experts, and they'll tell you that Queenie Featherstone’s situation mirrors the struggles of many Montgomery County residents, people whose poverty is hidden in one of Maryland’s wealthiest suburbs.

“What’s been interesting in the 2000s in Montgomery County in particular is the county was actually making progress against poverty before the recession. We saw the poverty rate fall between 2000 and 2007, and the number of residents living in poverty declined,” says Elizabeth Kneebone, who studies suburban poverty at the Brookings Institution.

But once the housing market collapsed, the number of people struggling to make ends meet started to rise. Kneebone says ten percent of Silver Spring residents now live below the federal poverty line of about $24,000 for a family of four.

It’s a trend that can be hard to see in many parts of Silver Spring, because poverty here tends to be concentrated in tiny enclaves around the community.

“You have some neighborhoods that have poverty rates of upwards of 20 percent, and others that have poverty rates of one percent. So it’s a real range, depending on where you live in Silver Spring,” she says.

Nonprofit organizations on the ground say they're seeing evidence of that growth in poverty. Jackie DeCarlo, the executive director of the Manna Food Center, says she’s seeing a spike in the number of people needing help filling their pantries, particularly in the eastern part of the county.

“We have six different distribution sites, and we've seen from 2013 to 2014 an increase overall,” she says. “Site by site it’s changing, neighborhood by neighborhood, we are seeing increased demand.”

“The rapid escalation of folks that are struggling has got everybody’s attention,” says Ronnie Galvin, the executive director of Impact Silver Spring. “I was in a presentation just yesterday [about] the dramatic growth in food stamp…applications. It was a hundreds of percent growth.”

“So, it is growing. But at the same time, because of Montgomery County’s history and tradition of prosperity, it’s hidden,” he says.

Struggles especially hard on single parents

Many of those struggling to make it are single moms like “Vanessa.” She asked that we use a pseudonym to protect her privacy, and that of her two-year-old son.

“Silver Spring is getting more and more expensive. That’s why I live the way I do, with roommates and so forth, just to make it,” she says.

Even with those roommates, Vanessa has a hard time making ends meet. She temps as a receptionist, which can pay as much as $15 an hour. But her paychecks aren't consistent. She doesn't have any family in the area and has to pay someone to watch her child.

“Basically I have to figure out my babysitting situation, get a babysitter," Vanessa says. "Because usually with temp jobs they call you the night before, or even the day of, to fill in for someone who might have called in sick or whatever.”

Vanessa has an associate’s degree in criminal justice, and in an ideal world she says she'd go back to school and eventually own her own restaurant. But what she'd really like, what she’s desperate for at the moment, is a steady job with health insurance.

“It’s very hard. You know, when it’s time to pay rent at the end of every month, things are very tight," she says. "That’s how it works. I try to plan ahead and put money aside as much as I can to make it for the next month. So…it’s a juggle.”

Vanessa has taken job training classes at A Wider Circle, a Silver Spring nonprofit that also provides furniture and other resources to low-income families. A Wider Circle also organized a conference on poverty that was held in Silver Spring last week.

Mark Bergel of A Wider Circle stands with local parents who just selected furniture for themselves and their five-year-old son. (A Wider Circle)

“Poverty is a crisis like maybe no other crisis we have from a social perspective,” says Mark Bergel, the organization’s founder and executive director. “So I have no desire to serve a little bit, or do something really nice for people; I have a desire to see poverty end.”

Bergel says to understand poverty in Montgomery County, and in Silver Spring in particular, you have to look beyond the number of people living below the federal poverty line.

“So in Montgomery County if you're a mother of three kids or a family of four, you need about $80,000 to really live independently and not depend on others for basic-need items. So, the poverty numbers are dramatically lower than the need numbers, if that makes any sense,” he says. “And in Silver Spring, like in many places in the country, the numbers are growing.”

Bergel expects those numbers to continue growing over the next five to ten years. But beyond that point, he’s optimistic that things will turn around, both nationally and in the neighborhoods he serves.

“Silver Spring represents to me a lot of the potential we have. There’s still a lot of diversity in terms of the people who live and socialize in Silver Spring. But there are pockets, deep pockets of poverty that we ought to go ahead and prioritize and say, ‘Montgomery County will shine when those neighborhoods shine.’”

Music: "Silver Spring Rain" by Hideo Shimazu from The Ultimate Most Relaxing New Age

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