Newsday, May 2, 2008: Religious community asked to improve life of poor

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BY RHODA AMON |; Staff writer Bart Jones

For the one in five Long Islanders trapped in poverty, life could get better with some concerted political action by the religious community, faith leaders said.

The call to a political agenda came at a conference of 225 faith leaders Monday at the Adelphi University School of Social Work in Garden City. That does not mean partisan politics, said Richard Koubek of Catholic Charities, a coordinator of the conference and a founder of MICAH, an interfaith coalition to end poverty and hunger on Long Island.

“We’re asking the faith community to go beyond feeding and clothing the poor and to help get at the root causes of poverty,” Koubek said.

Some of the causes were identified at workshops on segregation, underfunding of social service departments and child care agencies, and lack of affordable housing, health care, jobs that pay a living wage and public transportation. Congregations could make a difference by “showing up in places where they are not often seen, such as county and state legislatures” to advocate for the poor, Koubek said. A spike in foreclosures in the wake of the mortgage crisis has deepened Long Island’s housing problems, people at the workshop said.

Connie Lassandro, director of the Nassau Office of Housing and Homeless Services, said her department was working to prevent foreclosed homeowners from becoming homeless. “We first try to remodify their loan so they can keep their house. We negotiate with the lending institution,” she said. She urged homeowners in distress to call the Nassau Home Ownership Center hotline, 516-571-HOME.

Finding an affordable apartment is extremely difficult because the rent for a two-bedroom apartment on Long Island is $1,529 a month, according to the fair-market value set by HUD. A person would have to earn $29.40 an hour to afford that. A Long Island family of four with an income of $29,000 could barely afford to pay $730 a month rent.

The United States has the lowest poverty standard of any industrialized nation, said Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg, a professor at Adelphi’s social work school. She said the poverty line should be “regionalized” for high-cost areas such as Long Island. A poverty standard of $40,000 for a family of four, which would show 21 percent below the poverty line, would be more realistic and bring more state and federal money, social workers say.

The Rev. Thomas Goodhue, executive director of the Long Island Council of Churches, said his organization sees firsthand through its pantries that poverty is growing. Goodhue coordinated the conference with Koubek and Peter Chernack of the social work school.

Staff writer Bart Jones contributed to this story.

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