State funds help launch new Falls poverty program - Niagara Gazette

February 10, 2017 By Philip Gambini

The city of Niagara Falls is one of 11 state communities given millions by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration to cut poverty levels and increase economic mobility.

Civic, education and government leaders from more than 50 stakeholder groups convened Thursday at the Niagara Falls Conference and Events Center to begin figuring out how to use the $1.5 million from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Empire State Poverty Reduction Initiative (ESPRI).

The cash is a slice of some $25 million Cuomo issued through ESPRI, with a stated aim of fueling “community driven” strategies to further economic mobility for residents living below the poverty line.

Mayor Paul Dyster said, in the Cataract City, those aspirations mean “tangibly” reducing impoverishment levels with particular focus on racial opportunity gaps.

Dyster cited regional, minority unemployment rates — 17.3 percent for African-Americans and 13.6 percent for Hispanics — more than double that of whites, a situation he called “unacceptable” and one that he has repeatedly pointed to since last year in his annual state of the city address.

“We’re not attempting to reinvent the wheel, but rather build a better bridge,” Dyster said during Thursday’s meeting. “Our bridge is much more than metaphorical in the fight against poverty, we literally have to eliminate a gap that’s halting progress for a large number of our residents.”

Opportunities have dwindled in communities, Dyster said, because available jobs are going unfilled because many who need or want the work do not yet possess the skills or requirements to obtain them.

Despite a record of local job creation in recent years, with New York’s unemployment rate dropping from 8.9 percent to 4.9 percent, state Department of Labor Commissioner Roberta Riordan said Thursday officials remain aware it is “not improving for anyone.”

“We are painfully aware that for cities like Niagara Falls, there are pockets of deep, deep poverty, and that’s unacceptable,” she said.

The city will partner with Catholic Charities in Western New York in the program’s application, where caseworkers will work with individuals through education and career planning to accomplish personal goals, Dyster said.

To that end, according to city of Niagara Falls officials, the area’s future ESPRI programming will take its template from a similar endeavor developed by the Niagara Organizing Alliance for Hope (NOAH), who last year partnered with Catholic Charities for its implementation.

That program, aimed specifically at 16 to 24 year olds, utilizes NOAH and Catholic Charities 22 associated faith congregations, unions and civic groups to perform outreach in Niagara County and identify “candidates from communities of color” seeking employment and coming up short.

In short, the initiative, which stakeholders call a “pre-apprenticeship program,” unfolds like this:

• An individual elects to join the program and is evaluated with aptitude testing.

• Candidates meet with a caseworker to detail their unique circumstances and any that may hinder their job hunt.

• Stakeholders work together to educate the new client, bolster their skill set, and send them to a community service project.

• If the individual proves their commitment to the project in a productive manner, caseworkers continue to assist them in securing a paid internship position with a participating organization or labor union.

That will not be exactly how ESPRI is structured. For instance, Thursday’s group will target all age demographics instead of exclusively youth. Still, NOAH officials have a key role steering committee that will meet over the next months to hammer out a revised plan of action.

The city’s Community Development director, Seth Piccirillo, said the seeds of ESPRI’s preliminary structure were planted over the past 14 months as Dyster’s administration met with NOAH representatives, who became a “huge influence” on the project.

“Out of those meetings, came this,” Piccirillo said, the NOAH and ESPRI initiatives will function as “parallel” projects with similar goals and different target groups.