Bringing the Invisible into the Light 

February 7, 2022 | COVID-19, Racial Justice, GNJ News, NEWSpirit

Last January, it was determined that there were 8,097 men, women, and children in 6,210 households who were experiencing homelessness in New Jersey as the pandemic put a stranglehold on congregating job opportunities, and the health of many. Eight hundred and 35 of these people were unsheltered, and 899 households were counted as families. 

“As we expand our understanding of the changing population experiencing homelessness and those at risk of homelessness, we work to maintain a sense of urgency in identifying solutions,” said Taiisa Kelly, CEO of Monarch Housing Associates, a nonprofit dedicated to working toward ending homelessness.  

“In this time when we are struggling to emerge from the pandemic and rebuild, it is imperative that we don’t lose sight of those in vulnerable positions within our communities, especially those experiencing homelessness. We have a unique opportunity to seize this moment and make critical changes to end homelessness in our communities.” 

On January 26, the next Point in Time count will be underway. The annual statewide effort is a count of sheltered and unsheltered people who are experiencing homelessness on a single night in a given community. Counts are carried out by staff and volunteers who conduct surveys that allow people who are experiencing homelessness to express their specific needs and housing status.  

The process was first mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 2005 to identify homeless people so that assistance programs can be tailored specifically to these people with the intent of helping them. 

On a local level, these counts allow agencies to plan for real needs.People who are experiencing homelessness are naturally difficult to track because they move frequently and do not always feel comfortable using community resources available to them.  

In addition to identifying the homeless, Point-in-Time counts demonstrate a real needto fund entities like HUD and other agencies so that they can make monetary decisions based on data. 

However, in 2021 the pandemic made it difficult to reach some of these people as homeless shelters limited the number of people they could house, and the Code Blue measures usually reserved for many faith-based organizations had to be put on hold because of the restrictions. 

First UMC of Avalon continued to house those homeless people when the thermometer dipped below 32 degrees at its Trinity First Hope Center in Millville. Vincent UMC focuses on helping the homeless by assisting Family Promise of Essex County, as do others like Grace UMC-Wyckoff in Hackensack, the UMC of Madison in Morris County, and St. Paul’s in West Deptford. Family Promise continues to expand its client services to include things like drop-in centers for area homeless; Keys-to-Housing, a rent and shelter subsidy program with mentoring and support to permanent housing; and transitional housing for individuals and families affected by domestic violence.   

Despite the changes in the way homelessness was assessed in 2021, New Jersey continues to see disparities in who experiences homelessness. Consistent with other measures, people of color experience homelessness at disproportionately higher rates. On par with trends observed in prior years, Black people in New Jersey represent about 13% of the state population but about 50% of the identified population experiencing homelessness.  

“We cannot begin to address the racial inequities in our systems and begin to identify effective solutions without creating space for collaboration with the communities we seek to serve,” said Kelly. 

Because so many ministries address these populations, churches make for valuable volunteers in the counting process that looks for the homeless in many places including emergency shelters, transitional housing programs, safe havens, on the streets, and under bridges. 

For reasons ranging from job loss and mental illness to addiction, abuse, and the COVID-19 pandemic, homelessness impacts young and old alike.  

Some organizers use the count as an opportunity to provide resources such as warm clothing, meals, medical screening, or other needs that can be delivered to those in need while they wait to meet with the surveyors. Things like warm socks, small bags of hygiene items, clean coats, gloves, scarves, hats, and waterproof boots are recommended. 

Counties can have “drop-in sites” in various places where those in need are invited in to receive those resources, while other volunteers go out into the community to handle the same jobs.  

In addition to volunteers and resources, locations are needed, as some counties like to set up fixed sites where those in need can come in, warm up, have a hot meal, and meet with volunteers.  Warm meals, bag lunches, snack foods like protein bars, juice boxes, hot coffee, and bottled water are always useful donations for those in need who come forward to be counted.  

Once complete, this data allows policymakers and program administrators to delve into where the need is greatest and work toward ending homelessness. Collecting data on homelessness and tracking progress can inform public opinion, increase public awareness and attract financial resources that will help alleviate the problem.  

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