Many Struggling to Make Ends Meet

By WILLIAM LAMB and JAN BARRY
STAFF WRITER

The Record
Friday, November 24, 2006

After serving turkey to some of the 250 or so patrons of Eva’s Kitchen in Paterson on Thursday, Governor Corzine huddled with the program’s director, Sister Gloria Perez.

“Where do we put money into the system most efficiently?” Corzine wanted to know.

By asking the question, Corzine appeared to be acknowledging what advocates for the poor say they have known for years: More and more people are finding it harder and harder to get by in New Jersey.

“The needs are way greater,” Corzine observed.

That’s particularly true in the counties of Bergen and Passaic, where the cost of renting a modest apartment has outpaced what a family with two full-time workers making minimum wage can afford, advocates for the homeless say.

At Eva’s Kitchen, a Catholic charity on Main Street in Paterson, Perez told the governor about the housing and social services that the group provides, along with dental and medical care and daily hot meals for 250 people. Eva’s Kitchen collects about $2 million in government grants, but has to solicit an additional $3 million in donations to cover its operations, Perez said.

Even once that money has been raised, she said, there still isn’t enough room in Paterson most nights for all the people who need shelter.

Corzine asked to see more information about the group’s programs and encouraged Perez to apply for additional state funding.

A particularly alarming trend, advocates for the poor say, has been a sharp increase in the number of working poor among the homeless. About 40 percent of adults who sought emergency food assistance in 2005 were employed, according to a survey by the United States Conference of Mayors.

“These are families that have at one point been housed,” said Marsha Mackey, executive director of the Interreligious Fellowship for the Homeless of Bergen County, based in Teaneck. “Some have owned their own homes. They do work; they’re not receiving welfare benefits. But they just cannot make ends meet. A lot of them are making minimum wage or just above. Very few have medical benefits. You add all of those elements and you have a disaster waiting to happen.”

“That has become our target population at the Interreligious Fellowship,” Mackey added. “Living in Bergen County has become increasingly expensive and very difficult to maintain for a lot of individuals, particularly families — adults with children to support.”

An increase in the state minimum wage to $7.15 an hour last monthfrom $6.15 has not made much of a difference for poor working people in Bergen County, where monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,300 or more, said Kate Duggan, director of volunteers for the Interreligious Fellowship.

Samuel Lee, who helped organize a Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless at the Technology Resource Center in Englewood on Thursday, said that affordable housing for the working poor is a real problem, not just a “catchphrase.”

“A lot of people are one check away from a shelter,” he said.

Duggan said she expected more than 250 people to show up for a Thanksgiving dinner that the Interreligious Fellowship sponsored at the Holy Trinity Elementary School in Hackensack on Thursday.

The menu included 35 turkeys, 135 cans of gravy, three five-pound bags of mashed potatoes, 200 cans of vegetables, 85 cans of yams, 54 pounds of butter, 83 pies and 920 cans of soda — all of it donated by volunteers. Six students from the Lincoln School in Lyndhurst baked 222 cupcakes for the event.

A 43-year-old Hackensack man, who identified himself only as David, tucked into a plate of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese. He said he has spent several Thanksgivings with the Interreligious Fellowship volunteers.

“The food is excellent, and a lot of people are here to help,” he said. “It’s almost like a labor of love for them, and it’s great for us. Today, it’s like we feel like we’re all kings here, you know what I mean?”

Back at Eva’s Kitchen in Paterson, Richard Scott, 50, formerly of Glen Rock, said he’s been living at the Paterson YMCA for the last four years after being evicted from his apartment. He said he had lost most of his money to a lawyer who didn’t represent him properly.

His right arm in a sling, Scott grinned as he posed for a photograph with Corzine.

“I said to the governor: ‘It’s a shame you have to have money to get your rights,’ ” Scott said. “A lot of the people here, they don’t have the money to move forward. There are programs, but they are very limited.

“The one meal is good,” he said, “but it is not a cure-all.”

Staff Writer James Yoo contributed to this article.

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