The three shelters - Palisades Emergency Residence Coalition in Union City, the Hoboken Homeless Shelter, and St. Lucy's in Jersey City - have been operating at or near capacity on most nights, shelter workers said. The three shelters have, respectively, 40, 50, and 80 beds per night, but there are estimated to be approximately 2,973 homeless people in the county.
The 170 beds are reserved for people admitted to the shelters' residential programs, which guarantee people a bed, three meals a day, and a variety of support and counseling services to help them get back on their feet. The residencies usually run for a set period of time, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months.
But what happens when all those beds are full?
Shelter directors say they work to make sure nobody gets turned away.
"For us, if it's a cold, wind chill bitter night, a 90-degree humid day, or a bad rainstorm, we'll take people in," said Brenda Pulaski, Director of Housing Services for Catholic Charities of Jersey City and Newark. "In the case of a weather emergency or something of that sort, we find a place for them."
For many shelters, that often entails calling around to other shelters to find a spot, she said. Pulaski said that her shelter does not turn anyone away who needs a warm bed for the night.
There is also a county-wide emergency plan to handle larger demand, but only on days when it becomes bitterly cold. If the temperature is predicted to fall below 24 degrees (with or without wind chill) the county Office of Emergency Management calls a weather emergency, and the county's emergency plan goes into effect.
Then county officials, shelter providers and the United Way work to make sure that everyone and anyone who needs a warm place to sleep has one. Some shelters, such as St. Lucy's and PERC, set up cots in overflow rooms, and all of the agencies work together to transport people out of the cold and inside to an undisclosed location in the county where they will have a warm bed.
To get the help, people have to go to one of the three shelters, or call the county's homeless hotline, at 1-800-624-0287.
By the numbers
Jaclyn Cherubini, the director of the Hoboken Homeless Shelter, said last week that 110 people came to the shelter for a hot meal this past Monday, when it started getting colder. On more temperate nights, there are 80 per night, she said. But only 50 guests can sleep there for a night, even though anyone who needs a warm meal can get one if they get there by 7:30 p.m.
"There were so many people, we had 10 people standing [in the dining room] with their plates," she said.
Cherubini is not the only one who has noticed an increase. Pulaski said that she has also already seen larger numbers of people at St. Lucy's, the emergency shelter that Catholic Charities runs in Jersey City.
"We have been pretty much full since August, which is a little higher than usual for us," Pulaski said.
She said it was due more to the ebb and flow of the population than economic factors.
"We're not necessarily seeing people who may have been caught in foreclosure," she said. Instead, she said, it was often returning residents who still had trouble ending addictions or finding affordable housing.
Veterans more vulnerable
According to the National Coalition to End Homelessness, 25 percent of the homeless people in the United States at one point served in the military. And that is true in New Jersey as well.
"In the state of New Jersey, on any given night, there are approximately 7,000 homeless veterans," said Robert Sauselein, superintendent of Veteran's Haven, a transitional housing facility in South Jersey.
Based on what she has seen firsthand, Cherubini believes that the number of homeless vets in Hudson County may be higher than 25 percent.
"When I went out for homeless count last year, almost all of the unsheltered homeless were veterans," she said. "I think it's probably closer to 40 percent, but unfortunately [that many] do not utilize our shelter services."
She also added that many shelters are unable to address the special needs homeless vets have, including addiction and mental health disorders, like post traumatic stress disorder.
She said that when veterans do come into the shelter, she and her staff try to work with the state department of veterans' affairs to match them with the special services they need.
That special need, Sauselein said, is one reason that HUD's goal to end homelessness in 10 years is "good, but unrealistic." He said that many vets (as well as other homeless people) feel safer out of shelters. "There are some people who will never come in," he said.
The move to permanent, supportive housing
Around the county and around the country, homeless advocates are working on local versions of a 10-year plan to end homeless, pushed by the National Alliance to end Homelessness, along with the federal department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Hudson County's own plan was approved last month by the board of chosen freeholders. The plan aims to transition chronically homeless people into permanent housing.
"The key for our 10-year plan is to produce permanent housing for these individuals," said Jacob De Lemos, Program Director for Hudson County.
Cherubini said that the Hoboken Shelter moves about one to two of its 50 residents per week into a more permanent housing program.
And over at PERC in Union City, Director Matthew Kamin said they are building an affordable housing initiative in different locations across the county, in collaboration with the United Way and the Jersey City Episcopal Community Development Corporation. Their initiative provides the chronic homeless of Hudson County with 26 units of affordable housing.
The units are leased-based, which means the client pays 30 percent of his or her income to the apartment and the three agencies pick up the rest of the bill.
Also, in 2008, PERC will build eight individual units of affordable housing on its Union City premises.
For more information, call Hudson County's homeless hotline at 1-800-624-0287, or the United Way Social Service referral service, at 211. To donate food, toiletries, or money to the shelters, call the following numbers: Hoboken Homeless Shelter- (201) 656-5069, St. Lucy's - (201) 656- 7201, PERC- (201) 348-8150. Comments on this piece may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.