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Lifting people out of poverty

Poverty will take center stage later this week in Lewiston. The third annual Poverty Conference will be held Friday in Dunleavy Hall at Niagara University.

The theme for this year’s event, sponsored by the Niagara County Coalition for Services to the Homeless, is “From the Ground Up: Economic Development Solutions to Alleviating Poverty.”

The focus of the conference is the role of economic development in lifting people out of poverty, according to organizers. It will examine the problem on local, regional and national levels.

And it’s more than just an issue of having employment, said Robyn L. Krueger, executive director of Community Missions of the Niagara Frontier.

“Everybody thinks that people, if they just had a job, that would take care of poverty, and that’s really not the case,” Krueger said. “There are many factors that keep people in a poverty state. There’s many factors that keep people from being employed.”

The event’s keynote speaker will be Jeanne DuBois, who runs the Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corp. just outside Boston, Mass.

The organization, which is nearly 40 years old, is “one of the national models of how to bring community and legislation and the funding community together to begin to really advocate for change,” said David B. Taylor, director of Niagara University’s Levesque Institute for Civic Engagement.

One of the Dorchester organization’s success stories is ridding the community of drug dealers who handcuffed it for a decade, Taylor said.

Another speaker at the conference will be Gary Wozniak of the RecoveryPark project in Detroit. A project based on urban agriculture, the program expects it will hire 1,000 people who have barriers to employment, like criminal records or who are homeless, in the next several years, Taylor said.

The conference’s targeted audience this year includes the business community and elected officials. Individual businesses have been invited to attend by the Niagara USA Chamber of Commerce, Leadership Niagara and Niagara University.

On Thursday night, there will be a dinner event where business representatives will hear from DuBois and be able to further discuss the issue.

While poverty exists throughout the county, Niagara Falls is where the majority of those in poverty live. A report released in December 2013 by the John R. Oishei Foundation found the biggest increase in poverty among families living in the suburbs.

Still, that same report found that poverty in the Falls grew by 2 percent since 2000, while the population shrank by about 9 percent over the same period.

Of the city’s roughly 50,000 residents, nearly half are either close to or living under the federal poverty level, the report found.

In the fight against poverty, Niagara County has a variety of organizations that work together and who often meet to talk about their agency’s activities, said Sister Beth Brosmer, executive director of Heart, Love & Soul food pantry and dining program on Ontario Avenue in the Falls.

“We really felt it was important for us as a county to come together and have the opportunity to have a broader conversation around the issues that face the whole county,” Brosmer said.

The day-long conference also will include presentations by representatives of the Massachusetts Avenue Project in Buffalo, People United for Sustainable Housing, Empire State Development Corp. and local municipal economic-development agencies.

Conference sponsors include United Healthcare, Independent Health, the Mobile Safety-Net Team, the Highland Community Revitalization Committee, the Homeless Alliance of Western New York and Niagara University. A Falls resident also made a donation to support the conference, organizers said.

The conference will have a social media component – those interested in following the goings-on should use the hashtag #NiagPoverty.

The first conference at NU in 2013 focused on informing attendees about the concept of poverty, while last year’s conference looked at how some initiatives are designed to help but have unintended consequences that limit the chances of escaping poverty, Krueger said.

“Just setting up programming or just setting up particular systems doesn’t always do what you think it’s going to do because of these other external forces that are impacting it,” she said.

Officials said they will be trying to harness the energy of the one-day conference and translate it into advocacy.

“So many of these conferences are fantastic for six hours,” but often lack follow-up, said Christian Hoffman, Community Missions’ communications & development manager.

Conference organizers will encourage attendees to email lawmakers, write letters to the editor and take part in other basic advocacy efforts. There also will be a book club based on Robert D. Lupton’s “Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help.”

The conference’s two main ideas it will make a push on behalf of will be increasing funding to deal with homelessness on a statewide level, as well as increasing funding for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.

“Every time that we really get into these discussions and what the problems are, it all comes back to transportation,” Hoffman said. “And if that’s not the problem, then transportation is a problem that leads to it.”