Economic slumps can hit the disabled or those on the cusp of being chronically homeless particularly hard. A pilot rental assistance program designed to help them weather a rough patch is being phased out and as Brenda Flanagan reports, for many who are still Chasing the Dream, there’s nowhere left to turn.
“I’m supposed to be the breadwinner and provide for my family and children, but yet I can’t,” said Muhammad Dawud.
Dawud’s afraid. His family of five faces homelessness. Disabled after surgery for a brain tumor, the Teaneck High School graduate’s on multiple medications. He can’t work, so the family receives SSI and food stamps. Dawud’s $1,800 a month in Temporary Rental Assistance will end March 1.
“This is one of the oldest fears of people who are poor, is that if we should get sick, we’re in trouble. We lose our homes. We lose our apartments. We get thrown out in the street,” he said.
Dawud’s one of several thousand poor and disabled New Jersey residents who received help for years through temporary rental assistance before the $15.5 million pilot program suddenly ended. In July 2015, TRA assisted 2,428 people; by last October, that number dwindled to 1,375. Clients did get six-month extensions and referrals to social service agencies that tried to help them find a place to live.
“After that, there’s really nothing,” said Leah Ashe, deputy director of Northeast New Jersey Legal Services.
Ashe says for years these pilot programs were ultimately renewed or replaced. But not this time. Gov. Chris Christie noted it’s “meant to be a temporary program to help with emergency housing expenses.”
“You almost don’t even know what to tell a client. Because it’s just — it’s difficult for us as attorneys and advocates to look a client in the face and say there’s nothing. There’s nothing I can do to help you,” Ashe said. “There’s many people who are suffering and they just have nowhere to go. It’s very expensive to live here in New Jersey, even for working families.”
Housing costs in New Jersey rank among the nation’s highest. A two-bedroom rental here averages more than $1,700 a month. Waiting lists for subsidized housing can be years long so six months just wasn’t enough time for agencies to find affordable homes for thousands more, advocates said.
“It’s putting more strain on social services. Now they have extra clients and they are being turned away” or told “there’s no point in applying,” said Steven Leder with the Community Health Law Project.
Actually Dawud’s been advised by agencies to move out of state.
“The emphasis is just to get out. Out of sight. Out of mind. Be somebody else’s problem. If I go to another state — Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York — I’ll be a problem on those people. I’ll be a burden on people who I don’t even know. They’re strangers! Here at least I know some people in my own community,” Dawud said.
“There’s going to be many people who are going to be homeless. Many people are going to be looking to relatives to try to couch surf, or they may have to leave the state, honestly,” Ashe said.
There is proposed legislation that would hit a reset button and renew people’s eligibility period for rental assistance. But it’s sitting in committee and families are running out of time.