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What is Being Done to Help the Homeless in New Brunswick?

Part of our in-depth series in conjunction with the NBToday Listens project
Walter Herres, an advocate for the homeless who is working on creating an emergency shelter Wande Ogun

In November, we sourced reader questions and asked our supporters to vote on the question they were most interested in seeing answered. The question “Why does New Brunswick have a high rate of homelessness and what is being done to solve that problem?” was asked twice as many times than any other question.

Here is our in depth report on homelessness in New Brunswick, and what is being done to provide every resident a home.

A Campaign From Those On the Ground

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—On November 18th, 2015, Walter Herres, a community advocate for the homeless population, stood before City Council and demanded that they take action to improve the quality of life for New Brunswick’s homeless population.

As a care provider previously working with groups such as Catholic Charities, Elijah’s Promise, and other community organizations, as well as a person who has experienced chronic homelessness himself, Walter Herres is a self-described “voice for the homeless in New Brunswick.”

“What I want to propose is not only to create awareness of this issue… [but] in the immediate time, we need an emergency shelter,” Herres said while addressing the council.

His current goal, stated in his Change.org petition with currently over 900 signatures, is to persuade the City to create a “year-round emergency shelter, with additional capacity during severe weather events, to provide refuge for the homeless population of New Brunswick and potentially the wider Middlesex County.”

In addition to the shelter aspect, Herres envisions this emergency shelter to have on-site social workers, basic healthcare providers, and job coaches that will all work towards the goal of helping anyone who walks through the door gain the opportunity to hold a long term residence.

Two Rutgers University students also addressed the representatives with their support for a year-round emergency shelter.

Jasmeet Bawa, a student and city resident, spoke of the lack of year-round shelter options for the homeless community and how “a life shouldn’t be valued only when it’s close to death.”

City Council President Kevin Egan responded to Bawa’s public comment by saying, “you do realize that we have homeless shelters in New Brunswick, right?” and asking Planning Director Glenn Patterson to list New Brunswick shelter options.

After being asked by Bawa what he thought the numbers of homeless individuals in the city were, Egan said “I’ve lived in New Brunswick my whole life and I’ve never seen more than 40 homeless people. Eagan estimated that there are “less than 20” homeless people on the streets of New Brunswick at any given time.

This number greatly contradicts with the Point In Time survey conducted by Coming Home of Middlesex County that states there are 1,065 homeless individuals in Middlesex County, and 154 people who reported New Brunswick as location of their last permanent housing. The Point in Time survey counts both sheltered individuals and those on the street, and is considered the most accurate way to count temporarily and chronically unhoused.

At the end of the November 18th City Council meeting, Bawa felt that the Council was “combative and on the defense…[and] showed a lack of understanding on the severity of the issue of homelessness in New Brunswick.”

The idea that City Council, and the local government in general, is combative towards the city’s homeless population is a common one. Walter Herres also expressed his disappointment with the city’s overall response towards the homeless, saying that their goal is to “put the homeless under the rug.”

These comments are backed up by past actions by the City. Last winter, New Brunswick was involved in a lawsuit after they arrested local man John Flemming on grounds of an anti-panhandling ordinance. After sitting in the downtown area with a sign that read, “BROKE, PLEASE HELP, GOD BLESS YOU, THANK YOU,” Fleming was charged with “disorderly conduct” by the New Brunswick police. Fleming’s case was picked up by the American Civil Liberties Union, and New Brunswick was issued a Temporary Restraining Order to stop penalizing people for panhandling.

The ACLU-NJ chapter claimed that the city of New Brunswick was attempting to criminalize homelessness by “targeting vulnerable populations” and was interfering with begging as a form of free speech.

“The City doesn’t care about us,” said a homeless man who asked to remain anonymous out of concern that speaking up against the City would negatively impact his chances to get a bed at a shelter. “They just want everything to be clean- they don’t care about our health,” he said.

Coming Home- Rethinking Homelessness

Coming Home of Middlesex County is, according to their website, “the non-profit corporation formed by Middlesex County and the United Way of Central Jersey…to break down silos and create a true system to end homelessness in the County.” By connecting public and private partners together, along with local government support, Coming Home helps coordinate efforts and pilots new solutions to help every person find a home.

In the last year, according to Coming Home’s Assistant Director of Systems Bobbin Paskell, Middlesex County experienced a “dramatic decrease in homelessness in …from 2014-2015…we had an almost 25% reduction across the county.”

She credits this success to Middlesex County’s Continuum of Care, a group of non-profits and public agencies that work as the “networking body for the homeless.”

Coming Home has also just started a brand new program in November called Coordinated Assessment. “If you were homeless in Middlesex County, it used to be kind of like first come first serve,” Paskell explained, “now, we assess everyone in the same way using the same assessment questions. The assessment will basically rank order based on the length of time they’ve been homeless and the severity of their needs.”

Changing the assessment process means that people get services based “on need and length of homelessness,” she says, instead of relying on a system that just takes people as they come and adds them to a list. “We’re prioritizing individuals with higher needs.” The switch to Coordinated Assessment is seen as a huge step forward to providing services to the homeless in a more efficient way in Middlesex County.

Coming Home is also coordinating an affordable housing project that will be located on Zebra Way in New Brunswick. In 2013, Coming Home bought a plot of land from the New Brunswick Housing Authority to create “five supportive housing and seven short term support housing” units says Coming Home Executive Director Eileen O’Donnell. Coming Home is working with Bergan County United Way, Madeline Partners to build this development.

These units will be permanent supportive housing where the rent is subsidized and every occupant will be assigned to a case worker that will connect the occupant to any programs or entitlements that he or she needs.

This project is supposed to be finished in two to three years, but will most likely take longer. Kilmer Homes, a new affordable housing project in Edison that assigned 30 units to the homeless, was a “long time coming” says Paskell. Frequently, the bureaucracy gets in the way of being able to build developments in a timely manner.

Coming Home focuses much of its effort on educating people about homelessness and how it can happen to anyone. “I want [people] to rethink homelessness and break down the stigma and the sterotype,” O’Donell said.

They will be coordinating the 2016 Point in Time survey on the third week of January.

One Less Place Where Everyone is Welcome

Many of the chronically homeless use the New Brunswick Train Station as both a place to meet up and to sleep. Over the course of reporting and research on this article, this reporter counted an average of 12-15 people at the train station between the hours of 9:30 PM and 5:00 AM. It was one of the few completely public spaces that allowed people to sleep there overnight.

The homeless are confined to a small area of the New York side downstairs lobby next to the Dunkin’ Donuts. While people were previously allowed to remain in the larger upstairs lobby overnight, the train station now locks that lobby at night forcing both train riders and the homeless to stay out in the cold during the winter months.

On January 4, 2015 at 11:00 PM, the smaller downstairs lobby was closed and locked at 11:00 PM. This effected the homeless community, as they will have one less safe place to sleep, and the Dunkin’ Donuts workers who will experience a cut in hours when the store transfers from a 24 hour store to a closing at 11:00 PM location.

A sign taped on the train station lobby doors reads “Attention: We will be closing the store at 11:00 PM starting next week 01/04/2016. Please be aware of the time change. Thank you, Management.”

This sign did not clarify if “Management” was the management of Dunkin’ Donuts or the management of the train station. A Dunkin’ Donuts worker said that the sign was put up by the train station and that she didn’t know anything about it.

When a NJ Transit employee was asked about the change in lobby hours, he said, “it’s gonna effect the homeless more than it effects [this reporter]. The homeless problem is why they are closing Dunkin’ Donuts in the first place. You can’t even get through because they all sleep there.”

New Jersey Transit could not be reached for comment.

How many Beds are Actually Available?

To be eligible for a bed in the shelter system, a person needs to be documented in Middlesex County’s Homeless Management Information Systems (HMIS) database. According to HUD, “HMIS is a local information technology system used to collect client-level data and the data on the provision of housing and services to homeless individuals and families and persons at risk of homelessness.” Being that HMIS is locally based, each county’s coalition of services is “responsible for selecting a HMIS software solution that compiles with HUD’s data collection, management, and reporting standards.”

A person either needs to go to a designated intake center such as Elijah’s Promise, or they need to call 211 to be entered into HMIS. Anyone in Middlesex County can call 211 toll-free and will be connected with any services they are eligible for such as temporary housing or food assistance.

Previously, a small company ran Homeless Hotline but they lost their funding. Now “the county contracts with NJ 211 to operate Middlesex County’s Homeless Hotline,” says Paskell.

During the November 18th City Council meeting, Director of Planning Glenn Patterson listed the “number of shelters for the homeless in New Brunswick.”

The list of shelter options located in New Brunswick that Glenn Patterson provided, in which anyone in Middlesex County is eligible to use if they fit the requirements, is as follows:
• Ozanam Men’s Shelter- 40 Beds (men only)
• Women Aware Shelter- 24 Beds (women domestic violence survivors only)
• Interfaith Seasonal Shelter- 15 Beds (winter only, men only)
• Naomi’s Way Transitional Housing- 11 one bedroom apartments, 5 two bedroom apartments (for women and children who are leaving the shelter system)
• Bates House Transitional Housing- 20 Beds (for men who are leaving the shelter system)
• Triple C Promise House- 10 Units (permanent housing for people with physical or mental special needs)
• Dina’s Dwellings- 7 studio apartments, 1 one bedroom, 2 two bedroom (permanent housing for domestic violence survivors)
• Women Aware House- 3 Units (permanent housing for domestic violence survivors)

In total, there are 151 beds or spaces available (using the idea of one person per room occupancy for the units) for people to stay at or sleep in New Brunswick. However, there are several sets of requirements a person needs to fit or accomplish to be able to use of one of these spaces.

This list also includes several types of housing and shelter. Some options that Glenn Patterson mentioned, such as Dina’s Dwellings and the Triple C Promise House, are permanent affordable housing. This is different from shelter options because those who live in permanent affordable housing can stay as long as they want or need to, while shelters typically have a time limit on a person’s stay. Typically, people go through the shelter system before obtaining permanent affordable housing.

Furthermore, some shelters are for only men, or for only domestic violence survivors, or are only open during the winter, or are only for people with certain disabilities. While initially it may look like there are enough options for everyone, the current system leaves out many populations. For example, there are shelter options for women who leave their home from domestic abuse, but there are no shelter options for women who are experiencing homelessness for any other reason.

Many people and families that are in what Eileen O’Donnell calls the “hardship homeless- those who are homeless for economic reasons” but do not fit in any other category, do not fit into any of the specifications for shelter and therefore might have a harder time finding one shelter for the entire family.

With 1,065 homeless people in Middlesex County (this 2015 Point in Time number counts those who were currently in a shelter at the time of the count) and the concept that many people who become homeless move towards New Brunswick because that is where the Middlesex County Board of Social Services is, the amount of beds or spaces available in New Brunswick is incredibly low.

Housing First Policy- A Way To Fix Homelessness?

One solution that Herres, Coming Home, and other advocates for the homeless think could work well for New Brunswick is the Housing First model.

Kate Leahy, the Executive Director of the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness, defines Housing First policy as, “an approach which offers individuals and families experiencing homelessness immediate access to permanent affordable or supportive housing without any mandatory prerequisites like completion of a course of treatment or evidence of sobriety. The model is based on studies, which have proven that having the stability and dignity of your own apartment increases your ability to rebuild other aspects of your life from healthcare to employment.”

The Housing First model is being implemented in cities across New Jersey such as Trenton and Camden.

This approach to ending homelessness is very different than the typical shelter system approach where supplemental services are provided, such as job training or addiction counseling, but gaining permanent housing is mostly the responsibility of the homeless person him or herself.

“It used to be you go into an emergency shelter, you go into transitional where you get clean, dry, rich, sane, whatever and then you get to go to permanent housing,” explained O’Donnell. “Well I’m in permanent housing and I’m not perfect…people in permanent housing aren’t perfect, so why do you have to get perfect before you’re entitled to a house again?” she asked.

Herres’ plan to create an emergency shelter shares the same philosophy. “We need housing first plus supportive services,” he said.
Herres is now working towards creating a solidified non-profit to support his plan for making an emergency shelter, and is working with local faith and student groups to build community support for his initiative.

“The Housing First method is the gold standard for ending homelessness,” Leahy said. “With its shelters and soup kitchens bursting at the seams, particularly in the approaching cold winter months, New Brunswick could certainly benefit from…the Housing First program.”

To get involved with Walter Herres’ movement to create an emergency shelter, sign this Change.Org petition. To support Coming Home and its efforts, go to their website.