Community activist Austi Valcarcel recalled the last time she saw Maureen Chesney, a homeless woman who sometimes accepted food from volunteer groups that feed the homeless population near Journal Square.
“It was on August 3. She said, ‘Thank you so much for feeding us. Keep doing what you’re doing,’ ” Valcarcel remembered.
She appeared to have more to say. Holding back tears, however, she cut her remarks short.
On Aug. 20, homeless advocates and community activists held a candlelight vigil in McGinley Square, just two blocks from the church steps where Chesney spent her last night before dying in her sleep. Several homeless people and formerly homeless people who knew Chesney also attended the vigil.
Chesney died in the early morning hours of Aug. 11 outside Old Bergen Church. Friends say she settled on the steps sometime after midnight but was unresponsive when they returned to her several hours later at around 8 a.m.
‘The average life expectancy for a homeless person is 47 years, 31 years fewer than for the rest of us.’ – Emory Edwards
“The average life expectancy for a homeless person is 47 years, 31 years fewer than for the rest of us,” Emory Edwards, executive director of Palisades Emergency Residence Corp. (PERC), told those gathered for the vigil. Chesney was sometimes a guest at PERC’s shelter. “You can see how homelessness takes it toll when you have the stress of not knowing where your next meal will come from or where you will go to sleep each night.”
At least five homeless people have died on the streets of Jersey City in recent years. Last summer alone, three homeless people died near Journal Square within a few weeks of each other.
Oscar Lakra, another Jersey City activist, said, “I don’t see homelessness as a disease. I see it as a test. I see it as a test of our community. I think the greatest commandment that we were given was ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ ”
Lakra added that Jersey City residents must look for innovative ways to deal with rising homelessness in the community.
Nonprofits not enough
Chesney was part of the community of homeless people who have increasingly flocked to Journal Square and the surrounding area. In various interviews in the Reporter and elsewhere, many of these people have said they feel safer and more comfortable living near Journal Square, in part because of the emergency assistance they get from local advocates in the community.
Still, other residents in the area have for years asked city officials to find shelter space for this population.
“There is a shortage of shelters. Sandwiches and meals on holidays are nice, but they do not meet the need of the homeless to eat daily,” Migna Khan, executive director of Advocates for Peace and Social Justice, told the City Council last week. “Organizations such as my own do what we can to provide…[for] the homeless. But the fact remains that they need much more than that.”
Khan called on the council to work with Hudson County officials to get federal money to renovate and restore abandoned properties that can be used as shelters and transitional housing.
While Hudson County has several available shelters – including PERC in Union City, Jersey City’s St. Lucy’s Shelter, and the Hoboken Homeless Shelter – it is difficult to find space in these facilities for the so-called “chronic homeless” who live around Journal Square. The chronic homeless population includes people who may be dealing with multiple challenges – such as mental illness, alcohol dependency, drug addiction – in addition to living on the streets.
Stella, one formerly homeless woman who only wanted to be identified by her first name, said she knew Chesney and sometimes gave her money for food when she could afford it. She reminded those at the vigil that many homeless people may need more proactive intervention and detoxification services before they can get off the streets for good.
“You got to get them off the street. But then we need more services to get them the help they need so they can stay off the streets,” Stella told the Reporter later.
Homeless advocates Adela Rohena, Erik-Anders Nilsson, Esther Wintner, Imtiaz Syed, Riaz Wahid, and independent congressional candidate Stephen De Luca also made remarks.
Local bagpiper Jonathan Detres played “Amazing Grace” and “Going Home” for the memorial.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.