After escaping poverty cycle, Homestead woman works to save others

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For three weeks as a child in the summer of 1978, Tammy Thompson lived in a car on the Boulevard of the Allies in Downtown. It was an adventure -- being in a big city, washing up in a McDonald's -- until she read in her parents' expressions how dire things had become.

Kenneth Thompson left a life of low wages, mostly as an off-again coal miner in Bluefield, W.Va., when he and his wife, Runae, packed up Tammy, 8, Jeffrey, 9, and the family dog and drove to Pittsburgh. A cousin had talked up the likelihood of work in the mills.

Now 44, Tammy Thompson, an urban initiatives specialist for NeighborWorks, tells the story but lacks some details she craves. "My mother wouldn't talk about it," she said. "It was a pride thing."

The cascade of poverty's insults -- being homeless; living briefly in foster care; being bullied in school; a dinner of diced carrots one Christmas -- carries its own explanations.

"It's probably why I wanted to do this work," she said during a recent interview at her home in Homestead.

Some details of her story have become clearer while listening to similar stories from clients, whom she has counseled to avoid foreclosure and other crises. Many young women remind her of herself at their age, she said: "I have made some of the same mistakes."

Her desire to repair lives has taken on new meaning as she continues to repair her own. "I want this story to be something people read and say, 'Oh my God, the effects of long-time poverty are real.' "

The cycle of poverty is rooted in the tyranny of filling needs now, she said. That makes it almost impossible to think about or plan a future. Even a lucky break might be unrecognizable and squandered.

"The light at the end of the tunnel is not there for many people," she said. "I remember not seeing it as a child."

Her father found no job in the mills and no support from his cousin. The family had left Bluefield with $65. In Pittsburgh, they sought shelter with the Salvation Army. Mr. Thompson slept in the car with the dog.

After a policeman tapped on the car window, the children were placed in child protective services until their parents could find a home. "Even at the worst of living in the car, I was OK because I was with my parents. But from that day forward, my sense of security was gone."

When Mr. Thompson found a job as a day laborer, the family reunited and moved into an apartment in Arlington Heights.

At Arlington Elementary School, Ms. Thompson was bullied, she said. "I talked funny, I didn't wear the clothes everyone else had. I had been a happy kid, but I became withdrawn."

When her parents' marriage fell apart, her mother moved the children to the Hill District to be near her job as a nurse's assistant at the former Central Medical Center.

She said she wants to serve as an example that poverty's grip can be broken. Like many young women she has counseled, she felt stuck once.

When she tried to live free of welfare, she was often on the move to escape eviction. She felt guilty that she couldn't buy her children things they saw on TV and on other people. The guilt prevailed and she bought them anyway.

"Emotional things will take over common sense," she said. "It comes from not having, seeing other people having."

She had advantages, though: intelligence, introspection, resolve and parents who worked hard.

She went back to get her GED and enrolled in the Western School of Health and Business -- now the Sanford-Brown Institute, Downtown. While studying for a paralegal certificate, she lost a baby sitter and had to leave school but a professor urged her to return. She found another baby sitter and completed her certificate.

She went on to Point Park University and majored in legal studies. Shy of finishing her degree, she was hired to abstract for a title company and became manager of its closing department.

When a friend who worked at NeighborWorks recommended she apply there, she did and was hired as a foreclosure prevention counselor.

She was the counselor when NeighborWorks joined a multi-organizational effort to stabilize properties in Sheraden after a rash of foreclosures. Steve Novotny, the project coordinator for the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group, said Ms. Thompson's background gave her quick credibility.

"She's got this really unique ability to connect," he said. "People very quickly warm up to her."

"I talk to clients about need versus want," Ms. Thompson said. "It's never as simple as, 'There's not enough money.' I feel there is always something else that has to be dealt with."

If nobody in the family has budgeted and saved or even talked about it, she said, there's no model of behavior for pulling out of the rut.

"Tomorrow becomes 10 years and the next thing you know you have raised the next generation," she said. "A single mother with one child might get $158 cash benefits every two weeks, but someone else might wave hundreds of dollars in front of her to hide their drugs. I don't see a lot of people saying no in those circumstances.

"It goes back to the inability to think past today. It's overwhelming to think about how easy it is to get sucked into that."

In workshops and classes to help people budget, choosing need over want and make decisions based on values, she said, she is "always excited even if two people show up because that's two people who have taken a huge step outside of today. Are we ever going to break this cycle? It seems overwhelming. So I usually start every session with my own story."

Diana Nelson Jones: or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at

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