Volunteers searched throughout Hudson County on Jan. 24, seeking to collect data on the number of homeless persons for the annual Point-In-Time Homeless Survey. The Hudson County Alliance to End Homelessness is a coalition of representatives from local government, the non-profit community, and the business sector which gathers information as part of a federal mandate. The annual homeless census matters because federal aid to the homeless often hinges on the result.
While the favorable weather this year made it possible to find many homeless persons out on the street, many more remain elusive. The numbers obtained each year almost always undercounts this population.
“This was a real eye opener,” said Jersey City resident Michael Brown, who volunteered this year to be part of the count. His tour of the city took him to the waterfront and mall area, where he learned homeless people live almost side by side with the wealthiest people in the city.
“But they are literally living in the shadows,” he said. “We got to the mall late and only managed to count four people there. But the guards told us if we came earlier, we could have met many more who spend the night sleeping in the hallways and other areas.”
Security guards have become so accustomed to the large population of homeless living there that they even know most of them by name. They come at night, and for the most part wander away as the mall opens.
Only when homeless wander into the mall itself do the security guards crack down.
“This is different from when you’re walking and pass someone that is homeless on the street,” Brown said. “Most of the time the public doesn’t even know these people are there.”
This is true in other parts of the city. For a time, a homeless man actually slept nights curled up in the side door of City Hall on Montgomery Street, but he was apparently relocated in time for the Jan. 1 inauguration of the mayor and city council.
Spreading out through the county
Brown, like many of the more than 50 volunteers in Jersey City, gathered at the United Way offices on Bergen Avenue to collect materials for the annual audit.
The 24-hour count covers various areas in Hudson County where the homeless take shelter or gather. Volunteers go out into the community from about 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., though a number of people this year arrived at the Bergen Avenue United Way early to help put together packages that included socks, underwear, towels, toiletries and snacks. Many of the volunteers also pore over maps of Jersey City to make sure they can locate areas where homeless are known to gather or camp.
While this is the core operations center this year for Jersey City, other groups were working out of the Hoboken and Union City shelters to collect counts in those parts of the county. Another group worked out of the Bayonne Economic Development Authority in Bayonne.
This year like last year the weather cooperated. Although cool, it was not the deep chill of a few weeks ago, nor the heavy rain that affected the count negatively two years ago.
“Some years it’s so cold out we have to call the volunteers back,” said Raindi A. Moore, a division chief for Hudson County’s Division of Housing.
Volunteers carrying clipboards spread out through the city seeking to fill out the survey that gathers information about where homeless are in the county, under what conditions, whether or not they have used shelters or been in hospitals, jails, or other institutions, or how many times have they been homeless over the last three years.
A “chronically homeless” person is a homeless individual who, due to mental illness or addiction, has either been continuously homeless for a year or more, or has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.
When possible, volunteers try to find out what contributed to the person’s homelessness.
Moore said homeless numbers between 2016 and 2017 were roughly the same, but that fewer people were living on the streets, and more living in one of the three shelters or the county warming center in Kearny.
The county warming center takes in homeless when the other shelters are at capacity.
Hudson County has a population of over 620,000 people, but there are only three homeless shelters in the county: St. Lucy’s Shelter in Jersey City, the Hoboken Homeless Shelter in Hoboken, and the PERC shelter in Union City.
Due to redevelopment of the northern section of Jersey City, St. Lucy’s is scheduled to be relocated shortly, though officials do not yet know where the new location will be.
“The guards told us if we came earlier, we could have met many more who spend the night sleeping in the hallways and other areas.” – Michael Brown
County wants to end homelessness
Hudson County, at the urging of then-Freeholder Brian Stack, began a campaign in 2006 to do away with homelessness in Hudson County. Stack had hoped to do away with homelessness in Hudson County in ten years. While the numbers have come down drastically during that period, local officials say, homelessness is still a problem.
The Point-In-Time count has been a federally mandated biannual action carried out by the county since 2005, with the information submitted to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for the agency to determine how much money should be allotted for various counties and municipalities across the country.
While HUD only uses the count every other year, Hudson County mandates the count in order to keep track of the numbers and to provide services where needed.
Over the last five years, the count has showed a gradual decrease from 942 in 2013 to 822 last year. Last year, 608 of these were sheltered on the day of the county.
Fortunately, there are a number of organizations that provide various services, such as food and behavioral services to the homeless in Hudson County. Among them are WomenRising, the Jersey City Episcopal Community Development Corp., the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Newark, Saint Joseph’s Home, the Doe Fund, the House of Faith, North Hudson Community Action Corporation, and the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency. There are also food banks in several towns to help the poor.
Activists in Jersey City also provide food and other items to the homeless every Sunday at noon in Journal Square.
“New Jersey Sisterhood provides meals three Sundays a month, Jersey City Peace Movement does it on the last Sunday,” said Jessica Hellinger, a member of NJ Sisterhood. “The sisterhood provides hot meals so people can eat.”
First Lady shows support
This year, Tammy Murphy, wife of Gov. Phil Murphy, came to Hudson County, paying a visit to sites where the volunteers gathered.
Although a number of public officials arrived to greet her, she spoke mostly with the volunteers, offering them words of encouragement and support.
Some of the volunteers were organizers for other groups such as Marcel Quinones, a representative from Covenant House, which is expanding housing for young people throughout the state.
“We have a drop-in center on West Side Avenue,” he told the First Lady. “We hope to open a home here soon like we have in Newark, and will soon have in Asbury Park.”
County Executive Tom DeGise, who arrived shortly after the first lady, also talked to volunteers, telling them, “You’re doing God’s work.”
The First Lady told the volunteers that her husband would be part of a push to fight homelessness in New Jersey.
“Like my husband likes to say, ‘We’ll have your back,’” she said.
Homeless hotline working at last
A glitch that prevented some area codes from being able to access the county’s homeless hotline has finally been fixed.
The Homeless Hotline has had issues over the last few years, particularly because it often did not work. In 2016, prompted by The Hudson Reporter, the county reassigned responsibilities for answering phone calls during the day.
But after working hours, the calls were supposed to be picked up by a service.
The Hudson Reporter has a policy of not printing numbers for hotlines until they are checked. During the recent brutal drop in temperature, the paper attempted to call the hotline only to get a busy signal or no answer at all.
A frustrated Abe Antun, administrator for Hudson County, told the Hudson County Freeholders that as a result of a story published about the non-working number, he has received numerous emails from residents confirming the problem.
An investigation of the matter showed that the service answering the calls off hours was out of date, something adopted before the massive expansion of cellular phones. This service blocked out area codes that were not in or near the county. This meant that cell phones often could not access the service.
“What good is it if someone can’t use a cell phone if they see someone who needs help?” asked Freeholder Bill O’Dea. “It’s not like they’re going to find a pay phone these days.”
County officials scrambled to unravel the situation, and eventually solved the issue so that the service now recognizes all area codes.
“We didn’t know about the problem until we got a call from The Reporter,” Antun said. – Al Sullivan
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.