Invisible men Hudson County counts and assesses its homeless population
by Mark J. Bonamo Reporter Staff Writer
Jun 06, 2006 | 898 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
They hide on the hillsides above Hoboken, or in warehouses, bus stations, and fields on the banks of the Hackensack.

Starting on April 26 at 6 p.m. and ending on April 27 at 5:59 p.m., the Jersey City Hudson Continuum of Care conducted a 24-hour point-in-time count of Hudson County's homeless population in all 12 constituent towns.

The Continuum of Care is made up of local non-profit organizations, emergency shelters, homeless service providers, law enforcement, and local and county governments. The Jersey City and Hudson County Division of Community Development are the lead agencies for the Continuum, which is mandated by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to conduct an annual county homeless count as part of their planning process.

A total of 2,973 homeless were counted during the 24-hour period. Out of this number, 2,394 were found in emergency shelters, 283 in transitional shelters, and 296 were discovered in unsheltered locations.

Local breakdown reflects national problems

Out of all the homeless individuals counted, approximately 28 percent identified the problems that led to their homelessness. There were 308 individuals who claimed to be chronically homeless, 166 who were severely mentally ill, and 233 who were chronic substance abusers. Troubled military veterans numbered at 28, persons with HIV/AIDS at 45, victims of domestic violence at 36, and unaccompanied youths at 11. Two Hurricane Katrina evacuees were also on the registry.

According to Jacob Delemos, program manager for the Hudson County Division of Housing and Community Development, there was a slight rise in the documented county homeless population from 2005, when 2,951 individuals were counted.

Where they came from and go

The last residence for many of the homeless counted in 2006 was not surprising to many. Approximately 340 came from Jersey City and 105 came from Union City, both of which have very dense populations and well-known homeless shelters.

Some homeless people came from as far away as Los Angeles and Nashville. However, some came from the more suburban Hudson County towns where having dispossessed residents is not an expected reality.

For example, two homeless people stated they were from Secaucus, a town of only 15,000 residents that was just named the 19th best place to live in the Garden State, according to New Jersey Monthly magazine.

Karyn Urtnowski, Secaucus social services director, questioned the veracity of the Secaucus duo.

"I don't think we have any homeless people at the present time," she said. "Usually, I'm notified by the police or local residents if they see somebody wandering around who might be homeless. The ones who do come through are transients who generally congregate in the center of town."

After making sure that they are fed, Urtnowski sends any Secaucus homeless to shelters such as the Palisades Emergency Residency Corporation (PERC) in Union City or St. Lucy's Shelter in downtown Jersey City.

"I've been working in this town for almost 27 years," Urtnowski said. "If I have had 10 homeless people in 27 years, that's a lot."

Pastor speaks out

However, some Secaucus residents do not think that the homeless problem is out of sight and mind. William Henkel, the pastor of the First Reformed Church, volunteered with PERC a few years ago, and he remembered well what he saw there.

"I climbed over the Palisades wall in Weehawken and saw people living along the cliff," he said. "Great view, but I wouldn't want to live that way."

For Henkel, encounters with the homeless have not just been in far off locations.

"We've had homeless people come to our church that were sleeping outside in the community," he said. "There was one woman recently who was sleeping in the center of town in a doughnut shop who had mental health problems. Finally, the police forced her to go to an evaluation center. She later came back and thanked me for trying to help her."

Henkel, a lifetime resident of Secaucus, understands why some homeless people seek out his town.

"There are places in Secaucus that are remote that you can go to if you want to be alone," he said. "One man was living under the New Jersey Turnpike. The whole outlet section of town has nobody there at night. In warmer weather, people even stay outside by the Hackensack River."

In a town such as Secaucus where homeless are not usually visible, they don't live outside for long.

"We had a homeless woman come to [our] door for a sandwich. By the time my son returned to give her one, the police were already here to take her away to a shelter because somebody had called that fast."

Hands-on help

Henkel talked about the role of Christian charity in his work, in which residents are leery of participating.

"People in town are generous, but they are not really into hands-on work with people who are in need," he said. "People are a little afraid, or it's something that they wanted to leave behind when they came here. Our church goes once a month to the shelter in Union City to serve dinner. The mentality of people in Secaucus is to face west to Bergen County as to act and believe that they are us. I've tried to keep the congregation at least a little bit focused on Hudson County and to remind them of their Christian duty and responsibility to people. My task as pastor is to make sure that people are in touch with those lower down on the economic ladder."

As Secaucus continues to prosper, Henkel offered a warning for those who do not experience his hometown as a boomtown.

"There really isn't that much of a safety net if you begin to fail economically here," he said. "It generally means that you are going to have to leave the community. We are gentrifying quickly, and the whole economic base is going up, but there is a lot happening with poorer people in Secaucus that people are not aware of. We have to provide more affordable housing so the working poor and struggling young families can have some sort of a chance. This is a place that is presenting itself as a success, and if you are not making it individually, you are not with it and eventually not welcome. The impetus of the community is now into development and not the social needs of the people."

Mark J. Bonamo can be reached at mbonamo@hudsonreporter.com.
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