Problems persist despite declining homeless rate

From our partners at NJTV News, a deeper look at a new report on homelessness in New Jersey.

While the state’s reported homeless population continues a years-long decline, the people on the ground say there is no victory to declare. The executive director of the Isaiah House shelter in East Orange notes that she now sees large amounts of families coming in for help. “For us we’re seeing a lot of families that are nontraditional, meaning not just mom and dad. It’s been that people are trying to come together to be able to make ends meet. So for instance in our shelter we may get an aunt with the mom and the kids,” said Executive Director of Isaiah House Zammeah Bivins-Gibson.

The survey was conducted by Monarch Housing Associates, a nonprofit group that monitors homelessness. The one day snapshot is taken each year in January. The survey reports that the homeless population has dropped in each of the last five years, down to 8,523. About 1,400 of the homeless were not in shelters. The leading causes of homelessness continues to be eviction and job loss, but other drivers include mental health issues, substance abuse and chronic health conditions.

Jay Everett helped put the report together. “Overall a downward trend is a good thing .We want fewer people to experience homelessness. However there is still a great number of folks, and this is only one night in the course of a year,” Everett, an associate for Monarch Housing Associates, said.

And that means the authors of the report believe the total number of homeless are under-counted. And a significant number, 1,092, are considered chronically homeless, or people who have not had a home in a year. That number is up about 30 percent. “Even though there are some programs that are making an impact, there are still folks who can’t get housing, or permanent supportive housing, or whatever assistance they need while they’re experiencing homelessness quickly enough,” said Everett. While chronic homelessness is up overall, the report cites several New Jersey counties that are closing in on eliminating it. Bergen County, for one, has functionally done so.

“Bergen County has been able to do a number of things well,” Everett said. Everett says the key for counties is to coordinate all of the available resources and to know where and how many homeless they have. Of course, counting is just one tool to fight homelessness. Providing opportunities is another.

Tylekea Price spent 20 years in prison for armed robbery. With the help of Isaiah House she earned a degree in culinary arts and now has a full-time job. “When you come out of prison, if you don’t have anywhere to go, that leads you back to crime,” she said. “I find that the biggest thing that keeps people from returning back inside is support systems.”

“What we find has been effective is that we’re building whole people. And I say that because we’re not just saying, ‘OK, you get a job, you need to do this and do that.’ We’re looking at what the issues are, and a lot of people who come to us come broken,” Bivins-Gibson said.

New Jersey is ahead of the national average according to HUD, about 10 out of 10,000 people are homeless in New Jersey compared to 18 nationally. And while it’s important to count the homeless, advocates say you then need a plan to empower them.