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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Hundreds of homeless people visited Elijah's Promise soup kitchen on January 28 to be counted in the county's 2015 Point in Time Survey, an annual measurement of the homeless population in Middlesex County.
Last year, just over 1,400 homeless were counted at three locations in the county, the vast majority of them at the New Brunswick soup kitchen, located on Neilsen Street.
Numbers are not yet available for this year's count, but it was certainly a busy day for the workers and volunteers who helped make the event possible.
In addition to offering hot meals, the soup kitchen hosted many other local organizations that offer services for the homeless, including free HIV/AIDS testing, blood pressure screenings, referrals to rehabilitation clinics and information about programs for military veterans.
“Our job is to help them get connected to all these services that they need,” said Robert Mason, the Social Services coordinator at Elijah's Promise.
In addition, volunteers scoured the streets of New Brunswick to give out care packages and encourage the unsheltered to fill out the anonymous survey.
Volunteers traveled to city parks, Jersey Avenue, the New Brunswick public library, the College Avenue Student Center, and Rutgers' Alexander Library to look for the homeless, said Kyle Lejeune, an intern for Coming Home Middlesex and a student in the Rutgers School of Social Work.
Lejeune said a majority of the homeless he spoke to were “couch surfing” because all of the city's shelters are full.
“What you don't expect [from people] is the stories,” Lejeune said, pointing out that he had interviewed a man with a Master's Degree who was living on the street.
“Most of the time it's just somebody who had a lot of bad circumstances and is just stuck,” Lejeune said. “It can happen to anybody.”
Mary Ellen Lisman, a family medicine doctor who volunteered through Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital to help people fill out the homeless survey, said she tries to treat each person like one of her patients.
“There's not much of a difference between them and me so I approach it from that perspective,” she said.
The survey, which is anonymous, seeks to obtain a variety of data. These include: where the person spent the previous night, how often they have been homeless, as well as income and demographics information and services needed.
“The whole goal of the PIT survey is to see what services [the homeless] need and to capture the number of people who are in need as well,” Lisman said.
According to statistics from last year's Point in Time survey, 214 people identified as having a mental health issue, 148 as having a substance abuse disorder, and 123 as being victims of domestic violence.
Mason estimates that 60% of those who come to him seeking drug and alcohol rehabilitation services are homeless.
He said that during the winter there is often an increase of homeless who are seeking to get into rehabilitation services, in the hopes of getting food and shelter, or “three hots and a cot.”
Statistics for the 2015 survey are not immediately available, but Mason estimated that over 300 homeless persons came to Elijah's Promise to be part of the count during the morning and early afternoon Wednesday alone.
Two other sites hosted counts of their own in Woodbridge and Perth Amboy.
Homelessness in Middlesex County has increased steadily since 2011, after having hit a five year high in 2010.
While the number of persons in transitional housing has steadily declined since 2010, the figures of those in emergency housing have spiked dramatically.
According to last year's survey, the three most common reasons identified as causes of homelessness were loss of a job, income or benefits, being asked to leave a shared residence, and being evicted from one's residence.
Just around the corner from the soup kitchen is the city's only long-term homeless shelter, Catholic Charities Ozanam Men's Shelter, which houses 40 adult men, as well as two transitional housing programs.
On nights designated “code blue,” when the temperature is under 20 degrees or there are more than six inches of snow on the ground, Elijah's Promise serves as a temporary housing facility.
Mason said that typically 25-30 people stay at the soup kitchen during code blue nights, of which there have been several already this year.
Mayor James Cahill said the city is working to address homelessness.
"The City of New Brunswick is committed to alleviating the issue of homelessness and has developed a number of measures to bring food, shelter and support to its neediest residents,” Cahill said in a statement.
Cahill said the interfaith community works to provide temporary housing on a rotating basis throughout the winter and that, since 2012, the city has initiated five supportive housing projects, including transitional housing for women and children moving on from situations of domestic violence.
“This has yielded 25 units of permanent supportive housing that provide not only shelter but also support services that address health, employment, education and addiction issues,” Cahill said of the housing projects.
In December, a homeless man successfully challenged the city's anti-panhandling law, after getting several summonses and being arrested by New Brunswick police.
A Superior Court Judge issued a temporary restraining order against the city, forcing the cops to stop enforcing two ordinances against panhandling.
"The right to ask your neighbors for assistance or food is a First Amendment right and what it essentially does is criminalize being homeless or poor," Jeanne LoCicero said to an NJTV reporter, commenting on the city's anti-panhandling laws.
Mason said that one of the ways people can help the city's homeless is by donating food, clothing and winter coats to Elijah's Promise: “We accept any and all donations.”
Elijah's Promise also runs the Homeless Empowerment Action Recovery Team (HEART), a mobile homeless outreach program that travels throughout Middlesex County in search for homeless individuals in need of help.
Among the organizations which offered services during the Point in Time survey in New Brunswick were Community Hope and Soldier On (veterans organizations), Catholic Charities, MYPH programs (HIV Testing), Women Aware, NJAC program, the Puerto Rican Action Board, and East Brunswick Vo-tech, which gave free haircuts.