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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—On April 15, the first day of the weeklong Tent State University event, the co-founder and chief coordinating organizer of a local non-profit ran a workshop to inform the community about bout the organization, its roots, and what it aims to do in the city.
Homeless Empowerment Project Community Action Team (HEP/CAT) is a private non-profit focused on direct service to the homeless community, identifying and assisting homeless teens and young adults.
Co-founder John Burns said he is recruiting members to “revamp our homeless work… and bring our homeless prevention mentoring platform to New Brunswick.”
One of the main goals of HEP/CAT is to network them with resources, friends and family, and network them to state and federally funded homeless services provided in New Brunswick. HEP/CAT is celebrating its 10th anniversary this month.
“We encourage and help community members start their own businesses, for profit or nonprofit, complete or start their degree(s), and/or register them to vote (with an emphasis on homeless empowerment through the ballot).”
Burns said that individuals in the homeless community “may or may not be ‘passing’ as Rutgers students.”
Burns notices, “that there is a lot of similarities between the transient homeless and the transient Rutgers students. “
He wants to explore “homelessness as a mindset… in connecting the Rutgers community and its surrounding neighborhoods.”
“We are also developing a platform to address the prison-industrial complex and the ways Rutgers is influenced by the prison-industrial complex.” said Burns
“HEP/CAT has had a lot of fast success… I believe that overlapping paradigms and the moral issues raised in confronting poverty were the main reasons.”
“We are now looking at ways to work with Rutgers, Rutgers students and community organizations in building a bridge to New Brunswick High School that will raise the graduation rate.”
Burns talked about his experience in New Brunswick, and how important the the city’s community development is.
“I have worn many hats in Hub City as a student, resident, and organizer,” Burns said during his introduction.
He explained that, growing up, he was homeless himself. “New Brunswick was the closest and most convenient place I could come to. This city was my haven, my safe place.”
Burns said he used to visit local coffeehouses, record stores like Cheap Thrills, and many other beloved businesses that eventually closed down.
Burns also used to regularly visit the Chai Project on 5 Paterson Street, an AIDS/HIV clinic services, needle exchange, respite, and socializing environment for the homeless and working poor.
“As a homeless youth in New Brunswick, I always felt a special love for the Chai Project for getting me tested and treating me… The Chai Project also introduced me to a community of people in a mutual situation.”
Burns eventually became involved in the underground arts scene. “This community politically informed me.”
He started canvassing and organizing against police brutality, rent control, and education reform. This is what led him to the Community Empowerment Project, the organization that started the Tent State movement.
“I met a lot of people who were scared and felt threatened,” says Burns, “by what was going on in New Brunswick at the time.”
“If New Brunswick has anything, it has organized money.”
“The population of New Brunswick is two-fold: a large transient Rutgers student population and a working class, predominantly African and Latino American ethnic community, that seem to have conflicting interest at times.
Burns said that balancing the needs of both communities was critical to effectively mobilizing to affect political change.
“This division, and whether this divide is bridged, has been the real determination of success in my experience in organizing in New Brunswick.”
Burns believes that unity between the Rutgers student body and the working residents of New Brunswick is crucial in the success of the community.
“A series of events threaten to change the New Brunswick community of small businesses, free expression, entire neighborhoods, families, and friends.
“By demolishing New Brunswick [Memorial Homes public housing], the city was able to disenfranchise a community” said Burns, calling the high-rise housing projects “venues that increased contact zones between these two communities.”
Burns said the demolition of the homes displaced many poor residents, because they were replaced by far fewer units of public housing.
“[New Brunswick Development Corporation (DEVCO)] was promising homes for these people. But 300 to 400 families are still displaced.”
Because of this, Burns says, “New Brunswick went from the Hub City to New Gunswick.”
He asked the audience, “Why the rise in violence? Where did the guns come from? Why was this happening as the progressive DEVCO movement was happening?”
“The city was not interested in community development, but in expanding corporate interests and profiteering off of people’s lives and homes, Burns said. “When you have a transient community, you have less opportunity to compare rents with neighbors… and you have less social and political involvement from a community that is constantly changing.”
“With the closing of the Chai Project, the manufactured housing shortage in New Brunswick, and the closing of the mental hospital in Marlboro the city was flooded with an increase number of homeless citizens,” Burns said.
“We feel that the expansion of the penal halfway housing system, the lack of education in the prisons, our failing school systems, housing shortages… the lack of economic opportunities for teens and young adults, and police brutality are pathways to chronic homelessness… causing serious problems in building safe and healthy communities.”