A multi-faith “call to action” brought together about 70 clergy and leaders of faith-based organizations to focus attention on the crisis in affordable housing.
Spearheaded by the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations, the third annual Fighting Poverty with Faith conference was held Nov. 28 at the State House in Trenton.
Participants noted a range of “horror” stories, from low-income homeowners duped by mortgage lenders, to mothers unable to get assistance because they lack a permanent address, to families forced to decide between buying food and paying rent.
In its call for action, the group asked for a face-to-face meeting with Gov. Chris Christie and urged him, the legislature, and the financial community to adopt policies and programs addressing homelessness and the lasting effects of the subprime mortgage crisis.
“We cannot focus on spirituality or religious issues until we make sure our neighbors’ actual and physical needs are met,” Rabbi Daniel Grossman of Adath Israel Congregation in Lawrenceville told the group.
Cosponsoring the conference with the State Association was the New Jersey Catholic Conference and Lutheran Office of Governmental Ministry of New Jersey.
Attendees included Jews, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians.
Also addressing the crowd were representatives of New Jersey’s U.S. senators, Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg; residents affected by the housing crisis; and Arnold Cohen, policy coordinator for the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey.
State Association president Ruth Cole said the already bad situation that millions of Americans have been coping with was worsened in New Jersey by Hurricane Sandy.
Declaring “We stand with the vulnerable,” she said that the gathering was helping to “shine a light” on those who can’t afford to rent or own a place to live or are caught in the foreclosure cycle.
Echoing her sentiments, the Rev. Sara Lilja, executive director of the Lutheran office, said, “Without decent affordable housing these people will always be caught in the cycle of poverty.”
In its call to action, outlined by the Rev. R. Lenton Buffalo Jr., president of Building One New Jersey, the group demanded both the federal and state government do their parts to alleviate the crisis.
In particular, it asked that the $75 million the state received from a federal settlement with mortgage lenders be used to address foreclosures.
Leaders also called for a mortgage purchase program to help people keep their homes, to be paid for out of the $300 million in federal Hardest Hit funds awarded to states with high concentrations of people living in economically distressed areas.
Additionally, the group urged Christie to increase the affordable housing supply by directing at least 90 percent of the money in the state’s Affordable Housing Trust fund to build, preserve, and rehabilitate affordable homes for the vulnerable.
“In a state that is among the most racially and economically segregated in the nation, we need more affordable housing,” Buffalo said.
Grossman said that last year his congregation donated 6.5 tons of food to the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen and challenged them to double that amount in the coming year.
Among the speakers were those who have benefited from housing assistance. Jalil Martin described the mental and physical abuse he endured before becoming homeless at age 17 on the streets of Plainfield.
Martin found help through Covenant House in Newark, a Catholic-based center for homeless youth of all religions, which provided shelter, counseling, and classes.
Martin received the loudest applause of the day when he said that he was taking the test for his high school equivalency diploma that afternoon. He said he planned to get a degree in criminal justice and become a police officer.
“I believe I have a future,” he said.