HUD Homeless Count Comes Up Short

By David Cruz

Surprising data on the state’s homeless population. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reports that while the number of homeless dropped 3 percent across the country in the last year it dropped more than four times that in New Jersey, almost 50 percent over a decade. Still, there are some 9,000 people who are homeless here. David Cruz reports on what’s being done for those still Chasing the Dream.

When you think of the homeless, this is probably the image that comes to mind: adults sleeping on park benches or congregating near transit stations. But the truth is that most homeless people are invisible to us. They’re in school, or working or, like Theresa Pringle, volunteering, helping other homeless people in crisis.

“It’s people like me, and you, where every 30 days you’re one lockout, one foreclosure, one utility shutoff, one student loan missed payment, having to choose between medication or whatever it is from being homeless,” she said.

But the Annual Homeless Assessment Report from the federal department of Housing and Urban Development says homelessness, which it defines as a lack of fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence, is down, way down, in New Jersey.

Down almost 12 percent over the past year, 35 percent since 2010 and 48 percent since since 2007.

That 48 percent puts New Jersey at the top of states registering a decline.

But those numbers ring hollow to this man, who asked that we not use his name. He and his wife, who has a condition that makes it difficult for her to stand very long, and thus work, are facing eviction from this Elizabeth motel — today.

“There’s people at this very point now that are sleeping out there in front of a church on Dickinson Street in Elizabeth, sleeping right out there in front with a cardboard box covering them so that they don’t get too cold at night,” he said. “They’re sleeping out there during the day. There’s people out there asking for money with their signs up. You know they’re going through something.”

Adds Pringle, “If you’re living on your mother’s sofa, somebody’s floor, in the park, on the riverfront, down at Penn station, by the hockey statue and you are homeless, but HUD can’t track you because they’re looking into the computer, seeing who’s trackable by voucher and SSI [Supplemental Security Income] and so forth and so on.”

The HUD administrator for our region says she understands the skepticism.

“It’s important to have some context on the figures,” acknowledges Holly Leicht. “This is not the be all, end all. This is a snapshot of one winter night last January, so what these numbers show are important trends, but you can’t necessarily assume this is the exact number. But I think, in terms of trends of a downward decline in homelessness, we do believe that that is accurate and that, in some places like New Jersey, that decline has been pretty steep.”

Renee Koubiadis, of the Anti-Poverty Network of NJ, says New Jersey’s number is especially skewed.

“The numbers are taken from the New Jersey point in Time Homeless Count, which was done on Jan. 25 of this year, and the numbers show a significant decrease of 12 percent overall in homelessness. However, that was also two days after a major snowstorm, a blizzard, so many homeless advocates feel that those numbers don’t accurately reflect the number of homeless that were really in need of housing at that point.”

So, for every homeless person that gets counted, there is at least one person and often more, waiting to join their ranks. Benjamin Marte used to be on the street. He works at the airport now and lives in a small studio apartment in Irvington. Still, $700 a month rent, plus transportation to work, food, etc.

“I can tell you honestly,” says Marte, “I’m in a situation where I’m thinking ‘Am I going to be on the streets again’ because I honestly don’t know if I can continue living like this.”

Numbers can tell a lot of things but they can’t accurately describe the impact of not having a place to call home at the end of the day.