By Brenda Flanagan
“There are people who are homeless now, because of what they did,” said [NJ] Senate President Steve Sweeney.
Sweeney joined a group of social service advocates and strongly criticized the state Department of Human Services’ decision to let two housing assistance pilot programs expire, cutting $15 million in aid, and affecting some 3,000 disabled, elderly and mentally ill residents.
“Since the end of this current pilot in July, my agency, along with many other social service agencies has seen a flood of vulnerable individuals and families who are either currently homeless of facing loss of their housing,” said Steve Leder of the Community Health Law Project.
“People are being made homeless as the result of a bureaucratic decision that was completely self-inflicted. This is not something that someone else made the Christie administration do,” said Housing and Community Development Network of New JerseyCEO Staci Berger.
The DHS redirected the $15 million in emergency assistance funding because it claimed county agencies had done a poor job of finding permanent housing for clients. Sweeney disagreed.
“This is so wrong and it needs to be fixed, and it needs to be fixed immediately. And I really, I like the acting commissioner personally, but I’m really disappointed in the way they’ve handled this. It needs to be corrected quickly,” he said.
Sweeney compared the department’s action to its controversial Return Home NJ program when it tried to cancel out-of-state residential treatment for severely disabled New Jerseyans. That uproar finally ended when Gov. Chris Christie agreed to continue those services. Sweeney says the DHS isn’t well run.
“And when you deal with families that feel that the department is anti-disabled community it’s disappointing. The governor has weighed in on multiple occasions to right the wrong,” Sweeney said.
In December, Human Services announced a new, six-month intensive case management program designed to help all 3,000 clients, but the rules remain rather opaque, according to care providers.
“I think it’s still a process that they’re figuring out as they’re going and we’re not getting a definitive answer as to what it going to happen going forward,” said Bergen County Mental Health Law Project Director Melissa DiBartolo.
But a spokesman for the governor’s office said they’re “absolutely not aware of anyone losing benefits…” and called Sweeney’s statements “irresponsible.” Spokesman Brian Murray said, “This is alarmism and politics of the worst sort, that plays on the fears of the most vulnerable by suggesting they are at risk when they simply aren’t. Anyone who was in the pilot program is currently being worked with to identify permanent, stable housing solutions. … It’s truly unfortunate that they have misrepresented our efforts to provide the very best support through hands-on, intensive case management or would suggest that anyone is being left behind. It simply isn’t true…”
Sweeney’s sponsoring a bill that would not just restore the emergency housing assistance programs, it would make them permanent. He’s hoping to talk to the governor about his proposal.