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OUTTAKES | Vol. 8, No. 18, May 8, 2008
(What's Going On?)

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by Rick Outzen

THIRD WORLD DISTRICT THREE In August of 2006, we published our "Left Behind" series on the health, housing and education issues plaguing the poorest members of our community. We reported then that 13,538 of 15,800 (86 percent) of black students in the Escambia County public school system qualified for the free or reduced lunch program. Little has changed since then.

Kids from Escambia County's District 3 still go to school hungry. Many are lucky if they have one pair of underwear and shoes that fit. If they are females, by the time they reach high school they are much more likely to become pregnant than their white classmates. Their babies are more likely to die.

Why should we care?

If Escambia County didn't have District 3, it would be Santa Rosa County. Pensacola would be a larger Gulf Breeze. We could all play croquet, sip mint juleps and talk about how glad we are that we don't have "those people" in our community.

We have to care. It's not an option. District 3 will not magically disappear, and it will drag all of Northwest Florida down unless we solve the education, health, employment and poverty issues that are so deeply rooted in that community.

District 3 is really a Third World country. There are many good people living there. The kids are wonderful. Against seemingly insurmountable odds, they make the best of a bad situation. Unfortunately, for many of them there is little hope. There are few positive role models. The best and brightest of District 3 usually get the hell out as soon as they can afford a bus ticket.

For us, whites, it's frustrating because we've given money to Willie Junior, John Wyche, Marie Young and others over the years. Yet there has been little change. A few utility bills get paid. A rent bill might get covered, but these are only putting band-aids on the problem.

Yet this stopgap effort works for some. The white folks ease their consciences and maintain their Republican, conservative objections to the federal welfare programs while still writing checks. The black leaders maintain their political support by paying the bills of their constituents. A few lucky residents get their bills paid due to magnanimity of the white community.

None of this improves the quality of life in District 3.

The Area Housing Commission (AHC) has slowly demolished Morris Court, a low-income housing project in District 3, over the past four years. The Carlisle Development Group from Coconut Grove is building a 74-unit "affordable housing" complex on the Morris Court site at a projected combined cost of $22 million.

The project will have a very positive impact on the neighborhood. The AHC, however, missed an opportunity to maximize the impact by not requiring Carlisle to employ local labor, especially workers from inside District 3. There are good workers who literally live across the street from the project who have been refused work rebuilding housing in their own neighborhood. Instead, they have to stand in line at the day labor spots begging for work every morning.

We sent IN editor Duwayne Escobedo into District 3 to help write a story on the real conditions there. We had access to places that few whites have ever been to without risking their lives. Our goals were to enlighten and to help you see why it is so important to care.

The problem isn't that our city and county lack the funds to address the problems. The property tax revenues have nearly doubled since 2000. Pensacola has spent $49 million since 2004 on its retirement and pensions. Escambia County has spent its money on employees, law enforcement and vehicles. Escambia County has paid $25.2 million just for vehicles since 2002.

It is time we shift our priorities and look creatively at solving the issues inside District 3. The politics and programs of the past aren't working. They never will.

There are no easy answers, but there are answers. We need the right leadership to find them.

Rick Outzen is Independent News publisher.