Advocates: Homelessness, hunger affect all of society

Staff Writer

Raising awareness that poverty, hunger and homelessness impact every member of society — and not just those who are at risk — is part of finding solutions to these issues, according to speakers at a summit of advocacy groups.

In order to do this, it is imperative to change public attitudes toward poverty, according to Serena Rice, executive director of the Anti- Poverty Network, who spoke at the Dec. 4 summit in Monroe Township.

“Everyone needs to understand that and get engaged, or else we won’t really be able to change the policies that can change people’s lives,” she said.

Rice addressed more than 200 scholars, government officials and members of organizations from around the state gathered at the Anti-Poverty Network’s annual summit, “Changing Attitudes, Changing Laws, Changing Lives.” Professor Kasturi Dasgupta of Georgian Court University, Lakewood, echoed those sentiments, stressing the importance of addressing the structural underpinnings of poverty in American society.

“The continued presence of the poor does not in any way negate the vision, the dreams and the aspirations of the architects of the war on poverty,” Dasgupta said. “But it does shed light on the fallacy of making the program only one of providing services without addressing the roots of poverty.”

Instead of simply providing services, she said larger policies must also be examined to ensure that assistance programs achieve lasting change.

According to Dasgupta, changing societal attitudes is essential to ending the “dehumanization” of those living in poverty and ensuring that assistance programs and advocacy organizations can be effective. In addition to the speakers, the summit offered workshops to educate attendees on coordinating initiatives; using social media; how to effectively communicate with policymakers; and how to bring together stakeholders in the process of developing solutions and programs.

Shaquana Thompson shared her firsthand experience of overcoming challenges as a teenager at risk of homelessness and poverty.

Thompson said a combination of private nonprofit organizations like Covenant House, which serves homeless and at-risk youth, and public assistance programs — like the state’s Landlord Incentive Program, which pays a percentage of housing expenses for low-income people — helped stabilize her life.

Now 20, Thompson said she was able to lease a studio apartment and is employed fulltime. She remains involved with Covenant House and her adviser, who helps her budget her finances and provides counseling if needed.

According to Rice, Thompson is proof that community-based assistance groups and programs can help make an impact on the lives of people living in poverty.

“The idea of the [summit] is to mobilize the ground troops so we can go out in 2015 and really make a difference on some key programs that benefit low-income people,” Rice said.

She said the Anti-Poverty Network — a nonprofit organization that connects advocacy groups, faith-based communities, government officials, private businesses and people who have experienced poverty — focuses on three key areas: hunger, housing and economic empowerment.

According to Rice, some of the campaigns the network will be supporting in 2015 and beyond include the Breakfast After the Bell campaign; the United for Homes campaign that seeks funding to provide affordable housing; and influencing public policy surrounding issues such as low-wage jobs and paid sick leave for employees.