Religious leaders and social service providers came together in Hackensack last week for an interfaith discussion of affordable housing spearheaded by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.
“It’s a problem that goes across every religious and ethnic line in our community,” said the council’s chair, Rabbi Neal Borovitz. “What are we the people going to do about it?”
Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, and Hindu religious leaders also participated in the discussion, which was called “Fighting Poverty With Faith: Building Opportunity Through Affordable Housing for All.”
Each leader told how the texts of his or her religion called for helping the poor and the homeless.
The emotional centerpiece of the evening, however, were personal testimonies of three people who had lived with homelessness. One of them is Jewish.
“It was heart-wrenching to hear some of the testimony they offered about the living conditions they had to endure before they were able to get help,” the council’s director, Joy Kurland, said.
A young adult who now lives at the Bergen County Housing, Health and Human Services Center in Hackensack, the county’s homeless shelter, told his story.
He told how he was unable to live with relatives – his mother lived in a rooming house – and lived first in his mother’s car and then on the street.
The Hackensack center gave him a place to live and helped him find a job – though not a job that could pay the rent.
“It’s really impossible for a family with even two minimum wage jobs to find adequate housing in northern New Jersey,” Borovitz said.
According to Family Promise of Bergen County (formerly the Interreligoius Fellowship for the Homeless of Bergen County), monthly rent for a two bedroom apartment in Bergen County is $1249 – which is about the full pre-tax monthly income of someone making minimum wage.
Family Promise helps homeless families through a network of 20 congregations – several Jewish – that provide overnight shelter, along with another 70 synagogues and churches that help to provide food, babysitting, and homework help.
A woman who had been helped by Family Promise told how the organization provided her with shelter while she was between jobs and struggling to escape from poverty.
“She was a single mom with a child who wanted to find a decent neighborhood where she could be with her son,” Kurland said. “Many of the neighborhoods she could afford were dangerous, where she had to worry about gun violence.”
A third demographic group represented was senior citizens, in the person of a resident of Bright Side Manor, a non-profit assisted living facility in Teaneck.
A Jewish man who had been successful financially before facing medical bills for his wife’s illness, he went bankrupt and now relies on Medicaid.
“There were a lot of powerful messages in the room,” Jacob Toporek, executive director of the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations, said. Toporek helped organize the Hackensack event as part of the broad “Fighting Poverty With Faith” coalition, started five years ago by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs along with the U.S. Catholic Conference and the National Council of Churches. Affordable housing is this year’s theme for the coalition, which previously has drawn attention to hunger and green jobs. Earlier this year, Toporek organize a similar program in Trenton, which drew around 85 people. The Hackensack program attracted about 30.
“The problems of hunger and homelessness require a public-private partnership,” Borovitz said. “We have to do more to inspire people to support charities that are helping the hungry and the homeless, and we have to demand more of our public officials, so there are better government programs that are realistic in the level of support they provide for people who have lost their homes, or before they lose their homes.”
One specific issue on the agenda in Trenton relates to money that developers pay to towns. It is supposed to be used to build affordable housing. With towns failing to build affordable housing – at least in part due to a desire not to bring in low-income residents – the money is set to be transferred to the state’s general fund. Advocates want to keep the money earmarked for affordable housing.
Taporek, who leads the Jewish federations’ joint lobbying efforts in Trenton, said, “There’s almost a perfect storm coming together in the state of New Jersey. There’s less affordable housing available and there’s also an increasing rate of mortgage and foreclosure. We want to sit down and work with Governor Christie, to find a solution to the affordable housing problem in New Jersey. If the economy is rebounding, as the governor has indicated, then there can be a way of doing it.”
“The problems in our community are real,” Borovitz said. “They seem overwhelming and devastating. But if we actually stand together and coalition and fight together, maybe we could make a difference.”