By Philip Sean Curran
Mayor Liz Lempert said it is “especially challenging” to be poor and living in Princeton where there is “so much wealth,” even as she touted how municipal government partners with various organizations to provide services to individuals in need.
In framing the needs in the community, Lempert said on Dec. 18 that roughly 12 percent of public school students in Princeton are on a free or reduced lunch program and about 10 percent of all homes in town are subsidized.
Her comments came at a community forum about poverty in Princeton that NJTV, the state’s public television network, held in the Witherspoon Hall municipal building. Lempert joined five other panelists, representing the Princeton Public Schools, and nonprofit and religious communities that serve the town, for a discussion moderated by NJTV’s Michael Hill.
In Princeton, the median household income stood at $125,506, with 6.2 percent of the population of 31,822 people living below the poverty line, according to estimates for 2017 at the U.S. Census Bureau.
Lempert said regardless of whether someone is the wealthiest or the poorest, she felt “it’s so important that we have a community where everybody feels like this is their community, this is their town and everybody belongs and feels proud to be a Princetonian.”
She said the town’s Human Services Department, in 2014, surveyed low and moderate income residents to see what their needs were. They reported back food insecurity, housing, transportation and communication, she said.
“And those are all things we’ve been working on, how do we deliver those services better,” she said.
Lempert said she believes the cost of living in Princeton, like housing and food, is too expensive. She called them “solvable challenges” and touched on the partnerships the municipal government has with nonprofit organizations to serve the community.
“We work together and we each bring to the table what we’re able to,” she said. “I hope that each year we get better at providing services to the people who need it in a way they are able to access it and that it is making a difference in their lives.”
Lenora B. Keel, a social worker at Princeton High School, said some families, out of shame or embarrassment, will not fill out the paperwork to receive the free or reduced lunch program.
Angela Siso-Stentz, a vice principal at the high school, shared how officials will go the extra mile to meet family members outside the school to let them know what is available.
“Sometimes it takes some work,” Siso-Stentz said, “It takes asking twice, three times, four times, but we don’t give up. We also find ways to be creative to still support that student, regardless of the paperwork.”
Students may also carry responsibilities to support their families financially. Keel said some students have to work 20 to 30 hours a week “just to either help themselves or to help their families keep a roof over their head, to keep food in the house and keep the lights on.”
Working those hours impacts the students’ education, with students missing school because of fatigue, she said.
Nelida Valentin, vice president with the Princeton Area Community Foundation, said one out of six children in Mercer County live in poverty.
Earlier in the forum, the Rev. David Davis, pastor of the Nassau Presbyterian Church, listed among the most vulnerable groups in Princeton the “invisible, transient homeless population in town.”
“It’s a larger population than most people would expect,” Davis said. “Princeton tends to have a lot of folks passing through and then we have some who make their home here as homeless folks at risk.”
Yet in a community with many philanthropic causes, services to help the needy “do not always fall on top of the philanthropic ladder or at the biggest chunk of the pie in our community,” Davis said.
“There are those through the faith community who are trying to be a voice, to be a bug in people’s ears, to try to argue for what is right to address and serve our neighbors,” Davis said.
Later in the conversation, Edward Truscelli, executive director of Princeton Community Housing, touched on the demand for affordable housing.
Truscelli said his organization has a waiting list of 1,700 households, with the wait time depending on factors including how many bedrooms an applicant is seeking. A one-bedroom unit can have a wait time of a year, compared to closer to 18 months for a two- or three-bedroom unit, he said.