Affordable housing a major focus for diocese, advocates at Poverty Conference

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PROVIDENCE — About 130,000 Rhode Islanders lived in poverty in 2016, according to statistics provided by the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty. That’s nearly 13 percent of the state’s population and includes about 35,000 children.

About 300 people attended the coalition-sponsored Interfaith Poverty Conference on the campus of Rhode Island College on May 9, the largest attendance in the event’s 10 years, said conference coordinator Victoria Strang.

Catholic groups partnering with the coalition include the Diocese of Providence, the Rhode Island Lasallian Association Group, the Sisters of Mercy, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (RI), Christ the King Peace and Justice Committee and the Church of St. Michael the Archangel.

The coalition’s 2018 goals include improving access to affordable housing; supporting working families through gender equality in salaries, paid family leave, raising the state minimum wage to $15 by the year 2023 and granting driver’s licenses to non-citizens; preserving Medicaid and other health benefits; and providing employer incentives for the Child Care Assistance Program.

Housing is close to the Diocese of Providence’s concerns, said James Jahnz, coordinator of the diocesan Emergency Assistance Network, part of Catholic Charities and Social Ministry.

Since the coalition’s founding in 2008, these diocesan offices “have been active participants in ensuring that the goals of the coalition are completed,” Jahnz said.

Jahnz’s hope for the conference was that members of Catholic parishes and other faith traditions “take the work that’s done here today and bring it forth to make active change in the state house,” he said.

“The unemployment rate is down, but people aren’t necessarily at full employment or they’re not employed at a level where they can afford housing,” Jahnz said.

Highlighting this situation was the “Housing is a Human Right” workshop, moderated by Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser of Temple Sinai in Cranston. Panelist Brenda Clement, director of HousingWorks RI, noted that when housing costs are greater than 30 percent of an individual or family’s income, low- to moderate-income households often face making choices between housing, medical care and heating.

Clement also noted that neighborhoods sometimes adopt a “not in my backyard” approach when affordable housing initiatives are proposed, even when residents of those areas agree on the need.

“We have to change minds through research, through evidence,” Clement said.

Another panelist, Director of Government Relations and Policy for Rhode Island Housing Amy Rainone, observed that the stigma of government assistance “Section 8” housing often leads landlords to refuse rentals to potential tenants on the program.

Rhode Island currently has no law addressing this; but bills H7528 and S2301 would end income-based housing discrimination.

“The faith community has been fantastic” in supporting these bills, Rainone said.

Nondas Hurst Voll of St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Smithfield moderated the “Race and Poverty” workshop.

Amid much frustration shown toward Washington by members of both the panel and the audience, panelist Gabriela Domenzain, director of the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University, decried what she called the current presidential administration’s official policy of “separating brown children from brown parents.”

A recent federal policy requires detainment of adults crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally, including those claiming asylum as refugees. Children of these adults are placed under separate protective custody while their parents’ cases are evaluated. While the Department of Homeland Security supports the move, the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against the government to have the policy revoked.

Jim Vincent, president of the Providence branch of the NAACP, said that Rhode Island’s black community is faring worse than Latinos, with home ownership among African-Americans at around 30 percent and white home ownership at 64 percent.

District 6 Senator Harold M. Metts, who attended the workshop, said that Senator Roger A. Picard of Woonsocket has been preparing Senate Bill 2059 to add “equity language” to the Rhode Island state constitution, “but it’s not moving right now” as the bill is presently stalled in the General Assembly’s education committee.

Keynote speaker Traci Blackmon, executive minister of justice and local church ministries for the United Church of Christ and senior pastor of Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant, Missouri, issued “a call for people of faith to exercise belief in our sacred texts in ways that move prayer from sedentary, motionless recitation to action” in her opening remarks, she said.

“No matter what your faith is, all of our sacred texts share messages about justice,” she said.

Blackmon referenced the parable of the widow in Luke 18:1-8, whose persistence was an example of prayer in action. Like the widow, “as people of faith, we have to be prepared to wear out those who are opposed to justice,” Blackmon said.

“As people of faith, our political action – not partisan action – on behalf of the things we believe in, must go beyond the walls of our faith community and be put into motion,” she added.