BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
For the hundreds of homeless teens of Essex County who have who have suffered from abuse, neglect, abandonment, homelessness and human trafficking, spending a night on the streets of Newark in a cardboard box may be their only option. Montclair resident Ed Acker chose to join them on Nov. 21.
Acker and about 180 other residents spent the night on the streets to raise funds for Covenant House New Jersey, which offers residential care and independent living services to help New Jersey’s youth who are forced to seek shelter in emergency shelters, transitional homes, under bridges, wooded areas or in vacant buildings.
Although it was uncomfortable sleeping on the ground in cardboard, Acker said, the night was a relatively balmy 40 degrees, and they also had sleeping bags, layers of clothing, police presence and — most of all — each other. They also had homes and families to return to the next day.
“We thought about that a lot, how alone they must feel, cold, scared and unsafe on the streets,” said Acker.
Acker knows the young adults’ stories. He runs a financial literacy training program for them at the Covenant House. As a board member of the Rights of Passage Program, a transitional living program that gives homeless youth a chance to learn how to live on their own successfully, Acker has done the overnight six times.
“They leave home mainly due to family issues,” he said of the kids he teaches twice a month. They didn’t have nice families, their parents were into drugs, have too many kids or a parent dies.”
Thirty percent come from foster families that are in it for the wrong reasons, he said.
There are 2,235 persons experiencing homelessness in Essex County on any given night, according to the 2019 Point-In-Time Count. Of those counted last Jan. 22, 271 were young adults under the age of 25 who are not accompanied by a parent or guardian. There are more young women — at 61 percent— than men. The total number of young adults dropped from 2018, when 357 where counted.
The numbers are just a snapshot in time as they are collected only one night in January by volunteers from Monarch Housing Associates. #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.
Montclair ranked third in Essex County cities with the number of homeless people at 67, with Newark having 1,927 and East Orange 105. Last year, the group counted 70 homeless people in Montclair.
Covenant House officials said they “journey with our young people from the streets, to our residential crisis centers, to our transitional living homes, and on to independent living in the community to help them break the cycle of homelessness and poverty.”
Nancy’s Place in Montclair, opened in 2009 by a Covenant House board member, provides single bedrooms for eight young people who suffer from mental health issues. The kids are offered 24-hour support and supervision, and individualized mental health treatment.
“For many homeless youth, mental illness is an obstacle to their independence. Mental illness poses the greatest threat and requires special care and attention,” according to Nancy’s Place officials.
According to the survey taken in January, 37 percent of 287 youths interviewed reported suffering from some type of mental health issue, while 15 percent said they had a substance abuse issue.
But Acker said mental illness issues could be a result of being on the streets, or at least exasperated.
At Nancy’s Place, the young adults themselves create a wellness plan addressing their physical, emotional, educational, employment and spiritual goals. Each resident participates in the responsibilities of a shared household setting, which include chores, meal preparation, food shopping and weekly activities.
According to Monarch Housing Associates, factors that contribute to homelessness overall 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.
But for the young adults who find themselves homeless, many have come from years of neglect and poverty.
According to the #NJCount reports, some young adults get some money from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. The TANF program, which is time limited, assists people when the parents or other responsible relatives cannot provide for the family’s basic needs. While some of the young adults reported they made some money through odd jobs, most reported no income at all.
The most recent fundraiser, called Executive Sleep Out, was held by executives of various companies who create teams and then challenge friends and family to support their night on the street by pledging donations. It raised $958,000 for Covenant House.
“Every child deserves a safe place to sleep and hope for a brighter future, that’s why I do it,” Acker said. “Covenant House offers these young people so much more than a safe place to sleep — they welcome each kid with absolute respect and unconditional love, and their continuum of care provides essential services to help kids transition from homelessness to independence.”
The next sleepover, which is open to all, will take place in Montclair outside of Nancy’s Place in March. Funds raised will “keep the lights on and the doors open for kids in need.”