New York Times
This winter day begins a new year of the mortgage crisis. Nothing is certain about the miseries ahead except that they are growing. It is, for example, a freezing morning on Long Island — a national symbol of the single-family suburb. Its two counties, Nassau and Suffolk, boast well-run governments, an educated work force and a long history of stability and affluence. Comfort and consumption are the twin strands of their DNA. But the struggle there is acute.
In Nassau County, New York State’s richest one, the foreclosure whirlwind hit hard. Shelters are filling up and food pantries are emptying. More than 500 people sought emergency housing from the county in a recent December week. Most were families with children.
Connie Lassandro, Nassau’s director of housing and homeless services, said the need had risen 30 percent to 40 percent over 2007, as the face of poverty changed. More overburdened homeowners and the elderly are coming forward now — often bewildered and ashamed.
Private outreach organizations, too, are buried under an avalanche of need. Alric Kennedy, director of community resources for the Long Island Council of Churches, said the council used to be able to help some clients with a month’s rent or mortgage but the money ran out last October. It referred people to other agencies until those funds dried up, too. More people than ever are coming to its emergency food centers — 40 to 60 on a typical day in Freeport, in Nassau; 100 or more seek help in Riverhead, in eastern Suffolk. They are desperate for food, diapers, cooking oil and baby formula.
These are not the chronic homeless. “Our donors are now our clients,” Mr. Kennedy said. “People who gave us food are now asking us to help them.”
As people lose not only homes but also jobs, pain is cascading to the bottom rungs of the economy. The Workplace Project, a longstanding defender of immigrant workers’ rights in Hempstead, has seen an alarming rise in reports of unpaid wages, said Nadia Marin-Molina, its executive director. Contractors are cutting costs by missing payrolls and are counting on an undocumented work force not to complain.
Domestic workers are seeing wages cut in half, Ms. Marin-Molina said, as their bosses tell them to come back to clean house every other week.
When the undocumented lose their jobs and homes, there is no government agency they can turn to. Some of that need is being met by charitable organizations. The Huntington Interfaith Homeless Initiative is a network of church volunteers who give homeless men, mostly Latino immigrants, an alternative to sleeping — and freezing — in the woods. In cold months, they take them into church halls and basements, offering meals, winter coats and hot showers. They do this into the spring. But this economic chill won’t be gone by then.
Nassau County’s comptroller announced this week that s taxes — a mainstay of county revenue — could fall for the first time in nearly 20 years, which would blow a $24 million hole in the 2008 budget. Other local governments and nonprofits are looking to the federal government for help and for billions that might refill empty coffers and loosen tightened belts. But there are no assurances that the aid will be enough — only uncertainty in a place that has been shaken to the core.
“I’ve been doing this for over 30 years, and I’ve never seen it like this,” Ms. Lassandro of Nassau County said. “Nobody’s exempt from it.”
Ms. Marin-Molina was astounded by the turnout for The Workplace Project’s annual Christmas party. “An incredible number of people came,” she said. “At least a hundred.” Most were men who needed help and were grateful to go home after a hot meal with donated sweatshirts, hats and gloves.