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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—As city officials kicked off a long holiday weekend, the growing homeless population here was left without as warm place to go while temperatures dropped and another winter storm is approaching.
February 11 was the third straight night that the city failed to open a building for people without shelter to keep warm, including one where the low temperature was just 10 degrees.
In an apparent response to our reporting, the administration of Mayor James Cahill told TapInto New Brunswick that the emergency program that provides shelter during extreme weather had been quietly “paused.”
The situation flies in the face of a law signed by Governor Phil Murphy over a year ago, calling on governments to open “warming centers” whenever forecasts predict temperatures below 32 degrees for more than two hours.
New Brunswick officials have resisted efforts to comply with the intent of that law, instead using their own standards that fluctuated between 20 and 25 degrees, and even turning down a $25,000 grant to support the program.
Cahill’s former Chief of Staff Keith Jones II had previously said the law “doesn’t have any teeth” and that the local government does not intend to comply with it, and has called our concerns about the city’s compliance “B.S.”
Now, Jones says he made the decision to shut down the entire program for a week, citing vague reasons such as the condition that the city’s only warming center was found in on the morning of February 9.
“A number of other challenges and concerns were discovered, some COVID-related,” Jones told TapInto’s Chuck O’Donnell. “And as a result, I made the decision to close the site for a week to get things back in order.”
But, on February 12, there was no sign of any work being done at the city-owned building that houses the warming center, a firehouse that was converted to a community center in 2014.
Plans for a “Firefighter’s Museum” on the second floor never came to pass, and the city began using the empty space as a warming center in 2019.
Middlesex County’s public information officer did not respond to questions and concerns about the abrupt change in policy.
New Brunswick was the only municipality singled out on the state’s NJ2-1-1 website, which declared: “A Code Blue has NOT been called in New Brunswick.”
A person who answered the phone at the state’s hotline claimed the Remsen Avenue location “was shut down because it was under renovation.”
“They’re trying to get the facility together for Tuesday [February 16].”
But that won’t help the dozen residents who are currently huddled together for warmth in tents underneath a railroad overpass five blocks away, as temperatures are expected to again plummet below 20 degrees, with current forecasts predicting freezing rain “likely” to hit the Hub City after midnight on the night of Saturday, February 13 into Sunday, February 14.
According to the state government, “A county governing body is required to declare a Code Blue 24 to 48 hours before weather temperatures are predicted to reach 32 degrees or lower or wind child temperatures will be zero degrees or less for a period of two hours or more.”
“Counties must also alert municipalities with a documented homeless population of at least 10, social services agencies and nonprofit organizations that a Code Blue will be in effect.”
The homeless population has increased by more than 45% over the last four years in Middlesex County, according to last year’s annual report.
Based on data from January 28, 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic began to take a toll on the local economy, there were 494 homeless people in the county, and 175 of those are in New Brunswick.
The county’s Office of Emergency Management did not respond to a request for a list of other warming centers in the county. It is believed that the only other one open currently in the county is located 12 miles away from the Hub City in Perth Amboy, roughly a four-hour walk.
Mayor Cahill’s office also did not respond to our inquiries, and the administration did not release any statements about the matter through its social media channels or the Nixle alert system normally used to promote Code Blue activations.
Jones, who recently was promoted and given a salary increase to be the Director of Human and Community Services at the beginning of this year, also has not responded to our inquiries about the abrupt shutdown.
“The code blue goes through City Hall, through Keith Jones,” said a New Brunswick police official who answered the phone at the front desk. “My understanding the code blue shelter was closed. I don’t know why. They’re trying to find a new location tonight.”
Jones had previously stated in a December 9 email to this reporter, “We have an alternate site prepared and ready if needed.”
But Jones never identified the mystery location, and has instead given up on opening any warming center despite the winter storm approaching the city.
New Brunswick has previously used the Henry Guest House, a small museum, as a warming center. The New Brunswick Housing Authority’s community room on Van Dyke Avenue has also previously served as a back-up warming center, but it’s not clear if it was ever used.
In 2020, before getting promoted to be a member of Mayor Jim Cahill’s cabinet, Jones admitted that he turned down a $25,000 grant from Middlesex County to assist them in running the “Code Blue” program.
After the change in law, this reporter asked at a City Council meeting if the city would comply with the new regulations, adopted less than two months earlier.
“The amount of money that the county was offering us would not cover the extent of the work,” said Jones.
But when this reporter followed up by asking how much money he turned down, Jones erroneously gave a couple of lowball figures: “five thousand, ten thousand dollars.”
The following day, Jones corrected his error and admitted the amount the administration turned down was more than twice what he had told the Council.
“Just watched Council and realized I gave you the wrong numbers,” Jones said in a Facebook message. “The County’s offer was $25k for 25 degrees which wasn’t feasible for the same reasons I’ve stated for the last 2 years. We didn’t entertain the offer from the County for the second round of funding because it wouldn’t work.”
But, according to the city’s response to a public records request, the only costs to run the program on eighteen nights in the 2018-2019 winter was $6,082.98 in overtime pay to Jones.
This season, the warming center was opened 20 times before the abrupt shutdown.
Recently, Jones has changed his tune, saying that the Cahill administration is seeking funding to support the program.
It’s not the first time Jones has changed course about the details of the program, which is largely staffed by volunteers. In 2019, he questioned this reporter for not volunteering, then countered an offer to volunteer by stating that members of the press were not allowed to volunteer.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.