By Jaimie Julia Winters
As social workers and volunteers who work with the area’s homeless population prepare for the winter season, they are anticipating a greater need based on numbers just released by #NJCounts.
On a cold night on Jan. 24 volunteers from Monarch Housing Associates, which conducts the #NJCounts survey every year, headed to the streets to seek out homeless residents in shelters, wooded areas, under bridges, in vacant buildings and other locations where they are forced to live throughout Essex County and in Montclair.
Every year #NJCounts conducts a statewide Point-In-Time Count, with the results guiding how communities will respond to current needs and with efforts to end homelessness overall. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) mandates the statewide Point-in-Time count of the homeless every year.
This year’s count resulted in some good news and some bad. Although more people are seeking shelters rather than staying on the streets, the number of homeless has increased overall. Essex County once again ranked top in the state in the number of homeless at 2,229 counted this past Jan. 24, a rise of 9 percent from 2017 and well ahead ahead of second-place Burlington County, which counted 840.
In 2017, about 30 percent of Essex’s homeless spent the night on the street, that number dropped to 24 percent this year. In the last five years, Essex has seen a 35 percent increase in counted homelessness.
The top cause for homelessness, as cited by respondents, was being asked to leave a shared residence. Although that number dropped in 2018, eviction (the most common factor to losing a home) rose dramatically from 17 households in 2017 to 235 this year.
Although the count is just a snapshot of one night, Anne Mernin, executive director of Toni’s Kitchen a food ministry at St. Luke’s Church on S. Fullerton Avenue said the report’s numbers mostly reflect area homelessness.
“As housing costs increase and with rent prices disrupting lives, we are seeing more evictions. Households are doubling up to deal with the very high cost of living here, If that doesn’t work out they have no place else to go,” said Mernin.
Fifty-three percent of those experiencing homelessness had no income at all, up from 42 percent last year. About eight percent said they had some sort of paying job, up from three percent last year, while the number of households collecting Supplemental Security Income dropped from 38 percent to 15 percent. Almost 50 percent reported having Medicaid, and 33 percent received food stamps.
Thirty-six percent told volunteers they had a disability such mental health or substance abuse issues or a chronic health condition. Sixteen percent were 24 years of age or younger, 4.5 percent were veterans and 2.4 percent said domestic violence drove them from their homes.
Genders were equally split, but the homeless population was predominantly black, according to the report.
Montclair’s homeless population of 70 was the third-highest in Essex County, trailing Newark (1,928) and East Orange (95).
Mernin said her organization has seen about a 14 percent increase in need in Montclair. While Toni’s Kitchen typically serves lunch every Thursday, Friday and Saturday and dinner on Sunday to seniors, veterans and the working poor, they also provide healthy snack backpacks to students in low-income households every week. In contrast to the count, Toni’s Kitchen clients are mostly white, Mernin said.
Many are struggling with mental health issues.
“It gets in the way of of daily life. A job loss can push you over the edge. And homelessness causes mental illness to surface,” she said, adding the volunteers spend a lot of time counseling and advising on services such as those offered by the Salvation Army Citidel at 13 Trinity Pl. Last year, the Montclair Salvation Army provided emergency shelter to nearly 7,000 people with no place to go. The Salvation Army also provides showers, clothing, personal care items, breakfasts, addiction counseling, prescription drug assistance, case management services and a chapel.
Residents can’t make more than $500 in order to qualify for government aid, so the Salvation Army also offers assistance with utility bills, and rent and mortgage payments for those on the verge of losing their homes or heat.
“A loss of a job and no family to fall back on can lead very quickly to losing your home,” said social worker Ann Marie Goglia.
The opioid epidemic and mental illness are the top factors leading to homelessness, but so is lack of support, Goglia said.
The Salvation Army also offers housing at the Cornerstone, but the need is greater than the 23 beds offered at the home on N. Fullerton Avenue.
According to Monarch Housing Associates, factors that contribute to this year’s count of homeless include a shortage of rental housing driving up demand and costs, a failure by Congress to increase funding for the Section 8 voucher program and New Jersey jobs not paying a living wage.
The Section 8 program pays about 80 percent of the fair market rent, while the renter pays the rest. To qualify, a family can only earn 50 percent of the area’s median income; $43,950 for a family of four and $30,800 for an individual.
However, the Township of Montclair Section 8 Program waiting list is closed until further notice.