Capital Region Truth Commission on Poverty - Schenectady, NY

Event Description

On Thursday, July 13th, 150 people gathered at First United Methodist Church in Schenectady, NY. The gathering began with a meal prepared and served by the Albany chapter of Food Not Bombs. A panel of eleven commissioners, representing faith communities, labor unions, and community organizations, heard testimony from twenty people on their insights and experiences of poverty. Another eleven people provided video testimony, and two provided written testimony prior to the event. The commissioners included seven local representatives from various parts of the Capital Region, two commissioners from Western NY who participated in the Cuba Truth Commission, and two Hudson Valley and NYC commissioners.

Testifiers included some advocates and direct service providers, but were predominantly people who have lived experiences of poverty and oppression. Testifiers were often connected to local organizations. Many were active participants in advocacy campaigns, on issues including housing, the minimum wage, healthcare, and criminal justice.

Co-Sponsors: Labor-Religion Coalition of NYS, Citizen Action of New York - Capital District Chapter, Fiscal Policy Institute, FOCUS Churches of Albany, Food Not Bombs - Albany, Kairos Center for Rights, Religions and Social Justice, New York State United Teachers, St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry, Center for Law and Justice, Albany Black Veterans Association, First United Methodist Church - Schenectady, Mt Olivet Missionary Baptist Church, First Reformed Church - Schenectady, Schenectady Area Labor Council, IUE-CWA Local 301, Solidarity Committee of the Capital District

Testifiers (and organizations, where applicable)

Noche Salas
Sandra Moody, Albany Black Veterans Association
Melissa Krug, Fiscal Policy Institute
Elizabeth James, Fight for $15
Julianna Obie, Children’s Services of Schenectady County
Jacquie Jordan, Fight for $15
Barnett Hegler, Albany Black Veterans Association
Bonnie Nelson, CAPTAIN Youth and Family Services
Katie Houlihan
Autumn Cardente
Alicia Barraza and Doug Van Zandt
Drea Lanza
Scott Fernandez, IUE-CWA Local 301
Gabby Santos, In Our Own Voices
Juan Sanchez, Columbia County Sanctuary Movement
Jennifer Gunderman, New York State Nurses Association
Kansinya Lewis, United Tenants of Albany
Tanya Thorpe
Marion Frampton

Video Testimony:

Amy Hughes
Dawn Tallett
Liz Hitt, Homeless and Travellers Aid Society
Matt Jones
Pete Looker
Rev. Peter Cook, New York State Council of Churches
Rebecca Tell
Ricki Delmerico
Shelly Ford, Schenectady Inner City Ministries
Tyrell Outlaw

Written Testimony:

Misty Gallo
Eliza Navias-Bell
Pedro Perez
Michelle O’Leary
Robert Calabrese

Anonymous Guest, FOCUS Breakfast Club, Albany, NY


Written Testimony

Misty Gallo

Hello, I just wanted to share a few examples of what goes on in my own personal daily life of what is not considered living in poverty but to me it obviously is. I do not know who comes up with the budgets or the statistics of who they think is below poverty or living comfortably. For me, I am a single mother full time all the time. I work 40 hours a week, I make 29,000 a year, I get paid semi monthly. I get the bare minimum of help from SNAP benefits which is 182 dollars a month, (does not last) I pay 600 a month for daycare fees out of my pocket. I do not receive child support and yet I can not receive extra help even though I am responsible for two toddlers. I think the city needs to reevaluate how these budgets are considered because there are more bills to take into consideration aside from rent. I can barely pay my car insurance because I have to make sure daycare and rent are always paid first and being that I get so little SNAP benefits I go food shopping every pay period to make sure that my cabinets are full. The little things add up like paying for laundry, buying soap, buying toothpaste and toilet paper, diapers, wipes, gas for your car. Obviously I need transportation to get back and forth to work and bring the kids to daycare. These things are not considered and it seems like the people that need the help get denied while people that do not want to work get all the help. I am sorry but there should be some type of work programs that offer jobs to people that live off of the system so to say or people that are in shelters should automatically be trained for minimum wage jobs. There’s no reason that people should be in a shelter looking for work or living in housing not having to work, work should be put right on the table from the start with these types of situations. There should be clothing available for interviews if people can not afford it or public low cost or free laundry to those who can not afford it. There are ways to get around poverty it's just up to businesses around to put the jobs up and be willing to train someone to do the work. Reconsider the budgeting or how being approved for help is considered. These are the main reasons for poverty you have a bunch of parents out there who do not have help from the other parent or even with their family people that have to work and can not go to food pantries because they can not afford to miss work because every dollar counts.

Eliza Navias-Bell

Hello, I couldn't make it to the event tonight, but I did want to say something.

I was solidly, undeniably middle-class until a combination of circumstances in which my job changed drastically for the worse and there was a death in the family, leaving me as executor of an out-of-state estate. Those responsibilities clashed with the requirements of my no-longer-reasonable job, and I ended up quitting. I then began dealing with some major health issues. Fortunately, significant savings plus an inheritance meant that I was not in immediate financial difficulty. After about three years, I had depleted my savings and my IRA (incurring massive penalties), and I was still unable to find a job. I went to the county offices in Troy, and had an inexpressibly horrible experience. I discovered when I got there that there was no public parking available, forcing me to park on the street several blocks away, in a neighborhood where I did not feel safe leaving my car. Once I got into the building (which required a full metal-detector security checkpoint) and found the correct office, the person before me in line was escorted off the premises by security. As far as I could tell, the person became somewhat irritable because the woman at the counter was being nastily disrespectful, and she called security at the first excuse. I then told the woman at the counter that I was at the end of resources and needed assistance, but wasn't sure what I was eligible for or what the procedure was. She proceeded to tell me that I was not entitled to anything, I would not have the opportunity to speak to the people I needed to speak to that day, and that I should fill out paperwork and come back at a later date. She began questioning me about my circumstances, asking questions that were really not any of her business, in a way that radiated scorn and implied that everything I said had to be a lie, and generally treated me like I must be the scum of the earth because I was there talking to her. I left there thinking that I would literally rather starve than ever go back.

Fortunately for me, I am part of a faith group that had the resources and generosity to temporarily help support me financially and help me find a temporary job that eased my immediate financial circumstances. Once that job ended, I was able to find a permanent position.

I am now working full-time making $50K/yr and am back to being solidly middle class, no thanks to the State of New York. I am still dealing with chronic health issues that are under control, but do not make my life easy.

I just needed a little help to get back on my feet, so that I could become a productive member of society again. I got treated like dirt when I asked for that help, and I am still incredibly angry about that. This is how the country that tries to delude itself into thinking that it is the best in the world treats its most economically vulnerable members. I feel dreadful for the many, many people who go to the state for help because they have nowhere else to turn, and are begrudgingly given just enough to keep them out of sight, but not enough to ever stop having to struggle. I have had enough friends on SSDI to be aware of how stingy the benefits are, and how much the Social Security Administration jerks around the people who apply for or receive benefits.

Most of my coworkers are astonishingly unaware of just how privileged they are, or how difficult it is to manage when every dollar has to be carefully allocated, or how different it is just going to the DMV in Troy as opposed to Clifton Park. Now that I've seen the difference, I will make the detour to Clifton Park in the future, and be glad of the ability to do so. That is not because of the socioeconomic status of the patrons, but because the DMV in Clifton Park is designed to be quick and pleasant to navigate, and the one in Troy is decidedly not.

Thank you for the opportunity to share my experience, and I hope this helps you.

Pedro Perez

Not long ago I attended a conference conducted by a nationally known not-for-profit. The theme of this association’s conference was ending poverty. As I listened, it became apparent that the executives in the association had failed to ask people in poverty themselves what they thought would be useful in helping them find their bridges out of poverty. At the time I was executive director of My Brother’s and Sister’s Keeper of Albany, New York. I urged the not-for-profit’s leaders to take this important step because many of the front-line employees of the association and its partnering groups were not paid a living wage, which meant the leaders had a readily accessible pool of human resources immediately available.

These workers were using food stamps; the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC); and other governmental, temporary-assistance programs just to make ends meet. In addition, I implored the leaders of the various entities at the conference to consider raising the salaries of their employees, who frankly came from the very communities the association’s conference wanted to target in its hopes of reducing poverty.

The leadership people did not accept my suggestions. In fact, they argued they couldn’t afford to raise salaries. They insisted they could afford to do only what their sources of income and donations would permit. I asked one final question: Based on their responses regarding their bottom line, how would they implement an anti-poverty program? There was no clear answer.

Over the past year, I have made numerous presentations intended to help agencies develop programs that focus on moving people out of poverty, reducing the participation of young people in the “school to prison pipeline,” and encouraging initiatives centered on educational programs that guide children from “cradle to career.”

I pointed out that when we seek to help people in poverty, we must be sure they are present “at the table” to participate in the discussion—and sometimes guide it. Not as an afterthought, but from the outset of the dialog. I reminded governmental agency leaders, executive directors of not-for-profit entities, and business CEOs that people in poverty are resourceful and resilient … and they have solutions.

Citing commonly referenced barriers, a number of individuals at these helping agencies stated that most people in poverty are either too busy due to working multiple part-time jobs or lack childcare to participate in such meetings. In addition, they claimed that their attempts in the past to invite people from poverty to meetings were usually met with resistance, even disdain. I would note that these reports are from people and organizations who have not participated in Bridges Out of Poverty training.

In contrast, I have observed a dramatic difference among leaders and agencies who have taken part in training from aha! Process. These leaders and organizations have focused their efforts in collaboration with community members living in poverty. They have treated these individuals as colleagues with valuable information, strategies, and experiences critical to the development of sustainable and respectful solutions regarding the reduction of poverty.

This observation is one of many things I find incredibly compelling about the aha! Process approach. I also am encouraged by the communities and agencies in the Albany area of New York that have sought or are seeking Bridges Out of Poverty training.

Pedro Perez recently became project director of Empire State Poverty Reduction Initiative (ESPRI) at CARES, Albany, New York. He held executive positions with My Brother’s and Sister’s Keeper (2015–17) and Capital District YMCA (2012–15), both of Albany. From 1981 to 2010 he was a New York State Police officer, rising to the rank of brigadier general.

Michelle O’Leary, Hoosick Falls, NY

In 2015 I relocated my family to Hoosick Falls NY. We closed on the purchase of our 1st home the end of October and on November 25th, 2015, Judith Enck of the EPA put out a do not drink order for our village due to PFOA contamination in our tap water. PFOA is a man-made chemical that is toxic and persistent in the environment. It's manufacturer is DuPont and it's used in things like Teflon nonstick cookware, food wrappers, water and stain proofing for clothing, furniture, carpeting, firefighting foams and many other items. It has been linked to thyroid cancer, testicular cancer and many other issues.

A few weeks after the announcement from the EPA we found out that two companies accused of the pollution would be supplying free bottled water at the local grocery store. My initial concern was how would people without transportation or with medical issues be able to pick up their gallons of water without assistance. Many of our neighbors are elderly and already receive meals on wheels. I questioned help for about two weeks before I finally decided that someone needed to do something and that someone was me. I set up a meeting and called for volunteers. Luckily I had an excellent turn-out and some people signed up to help. Our water deliveries also turned into delivering information to our shut ins. Many who aren't on social media and didn't get updates on what was happening with water situation. The volunteers and I relayed information on blood testing to check PFOA levels, well water testing and contact information for Dept. of Health, Environmental and EPA and any and all info we could find. We went out daily and I was always just a phone call away to answer questions. We delivered thousands of gallons of water a week to private homes and senior housing.

After weeks of doing these tasks I learned that the state could have sent in water tankers, set up water deliveries or made the corporations do so. None of these efforts were made. It all fell on volunteers. I feel that had we lived in a different area needs would have been met and a better effort would have been made to inform the public of issues and any available help. Many times I asked our then mayor to mail flyers out and was always told it would be to costly. Volunteers and I made copies of info whenever we could or shared info through our cell phones to community members.

I think out community was failed on many levels and that so much more could have been done. I can't help but wonder how differently things would have been if we weren't a small, low income area in the middle of nowhere.

Robert Calabrese

My name is Robert Calabrese, and I would like to share some of the stories I have regarding poverty in the Capital Region. I have been in human resources for a few years, and have spoken to hundreds of people in various financial situations.

Many workers find they are unable to afford to work full time because it cuts into their benefits provided to them in the form of SNAP and Medicaid. Part of this is due to certain poor financial practices such as going to the emergency room for every medical situation (including to obtain doctor's notes to get out of work). I have listened to many people that find it hard to budget for bus passes, yet have enough money to purchase cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs (I see this in daily arrest records). I recall having a conversation with a newer employee that was from NYC and had been on Medicaid their entire life. Their services were ending because they were full time and were making too much money to qualify. When I explained how health insurance deductibles worked, and the costs associated with emergency room visits, they decided to stop showing up to work and voluntarily quit to keep their benefits. I have had numerous employees switch from full time to part time as well, and noted that they could not afford to live without those benefits. I believe this to be related to being unable to budget for their expenses, and having set money put aside for food allows them to afford their lifestyles.

When the value of benefits can meet, come close to, or exceed the amount people make from working, it seems people lose the drive to work to make a living. There are people that routinely miss work in order to report lower wages. People that willingly lose out on 40+ hours of work a month and end up losing their jobs. I have seen those same people are served summons to civil court at work for failing to pay medical expenses.

To begin to fix poverty in this region, you need to start before the problem begins, by striking at the root causes. This could be done by educating students on basic life skills such as setting up a budget and planning for expenses and also enforcing time limits and other restrictions on benefits. Why should taxpayers pay for benefits for someone that voluntarily lost their job? If more accountability is placed on the applicants, they have more of an incentive to engage in the work force.

Guest at the FOCUS Breakfast Club, Albany, NY

Poverty is something that should not be a way to have to live or deal with. Especially every single moment of one’s life.

I see people I know everyday, and to see them, and to see what poverty and homelessness does to their appearance and spirit of being a human...well, all I can say is: it brings tears to my eyes. There are times I have to swallow hard and hold back the tears from flowing from my eyes. Then, I will revert back to my own struggles with the same situations.

I can remember looking in my own pockets, finding tissues used from crying, due to being poor, going in between shelters, friend’s houses, and sad to admit, sleeping on a park bench or under a tree. The hardest thing to me is: the weather! I’d hope it wouldn’t rain or snow on a day; I was so tired from walking, looking for a safe, dry place to call my temporary palace (home). I used to hang my head down when a person I knew would see me and ask me how I was doing. Yes, I sensed that they cared and didn’t want to get into my business. Maybe, because they knew my personality and character of being a silent quiet person, one who could play the masquerade in life. I’d pretend I went up to the Adirondacks camping for a night. I would tell myself, if anyone asks why I had a small over-stuffed backpack, and the same clothes on, well, I would say: “I went camping for the night” or “oh this is my laundry, I just have to go to the laundromat and do for the day.”

Do people have empathy in this world? Some yes, some no. I want to believe in my heart yes.

Albany, NY needs to really look at the poverty and homelessness crisis here in this city. Albany needs more funding to put projects and programs into place for women: we are very short on women’s shelters. Then, the problem would arise: if Albany did get a program started for women’s shelters, where would they build or what used building would they be able to lease or own? Of course, we are looking at a lot of setbacks.


I'll try to make this as short as possible. My story begins when i graduate HS for many years I suffered severe anxiety/panic attacks finally after going to a few doctors I've been stabilized.

As a result of these mental issues I was unable to work. I've gone to MANY agencies looking for help to no avail! I am a SSI recipient and of course they don't provide enough to get by as I'm sure you're aware. I do work part-time (so I'm under employed) but that is all included  with what I'm able to receive from SS. It's just very very difficult. Doing what I can to help myself I've taken part in the ticket to work program (SS) which really is a ticket to nowhere. My job counselor who is a good man and I don't blame him doesn't have the power i.e. the program to get jobs for people. I know a lot of important people and I've asked for help and again they have done nothing to help me in my despair. I've applied for jobs that I can do and all I face is roadblocks. Despite my ordeal I try to keep a positive attitude although it's very difficult.