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MESH workers predict the need will be greater this year as we go into the winters months and with COVID still among us.
COURTESY MESH

BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

As social workers and volunteers who work with the area’s homeless prepare for winter, they are anticipating greater need due to the economic turndown since COVID-19 hit last March.

According to NJCounts’ one-night survey conducted last January but released last month, the number of homeless in Essex County has stayed about the same. On Jan. 28 there were 2,214 persons who were homeless on a single night in Essex County, compared to 2,235 one year prior.

Montclair did see a 7.5-percent rise, from 67 in 2019 to 72.

But when the count was conducted in January, it was pre-COVID.

Montclair ranked fourth in Essex County in the number of homeless, behind Newark, leading at 1,859, East Orange at 102 and Irvington at 87. Of the 72 homeless people in Montclair on Jan. 28, 61 were in a shelter and 11 were on the streets. Last year, 54 were sheltered while 13 were on the streets. 

Montclair Emergency Services for Hope (MESH) is looking for ways to safely reopen its overnight respite, offering shelter November through February at Union Baptist Church. The Salvation Army’s Cornerstone Homeless Shelter has remained open but is preparing for an increase in numbers, while having to limit overnight guests due to social distancing. 

When COVID hit in March, MESH had already closed its overnight shelter, which was open seasonally, and pivoted its sit-down cafe to grab-and-go meals for its 45 daily clients at the Salvation Army parking lot, said Executive Director Gwen Parker Ames. 


Clients wait outside Trucly Hernandez window to be helped by the services the Salvation Army provides. After COVID hit, the social workers see clients through open windows instead of at their desks.
COURTESY SALVATION ARMY

The Salvation Army also changed to grab-and-go meals for its 70 or so clients and continues to allow people to shower, limiting them to one at a time and providing new socks and underwear to guests. The town has set up a port-a-potty outside. Social workers assist clients in need of housing or on the verge of losing housing, said Salvation Army Business Administrator Michele Kroeze. 

Overnight sheltering through the Salvation Army’s Cornerstone, which pre-COVID could house up to three families and 10 singles, was limited to two families and eight singles when the pandemic hit. Clients must pass a COVID test; it could take three days for results to come back. If they have nowhere to stay, the Salvation Army will put them up in a hotel. One room at Cornerstone is set aside for quarantine; it has not yet been used, “thankfully,” said Kroeze. 

MESH is currently looking for another site to house guests overnight, as the church is a one-room facility; with social distancing guests would be limited, and the cost of sanitizing each day could break the  budget.

Joseph Tyson, MESH’s security guard, serves the grab-and-go meals at the Salvation Army parking lot. Tyson knows each of the MESH guests by name. Many of the 40 people who show up at the Salvation Army for takeout meals have a home and a place to store food. 

But not all. He and his wife launched their own project to bring a breakfast on Monday and Friday mornings to local people who are hungry. He visits Panera Bread on Sunday and Thursday evenings just before closing to pick up the baked goods they did not sell that day. He shops at the Dollar Store for items like individual peanut butter with crackers packets or other prepackaged items. 

Each Monday and Friday morning Tyson serves his “continental breakfast,” first at the Lackawanna Station parking lot, where he meets five or more people, and then at the Salvation Army, where other hungry friends await him. 

THE COUNT

On a cold night in January volunteers from Monarch Housing Associates, which conducts the NJCounts survey every year, headed to the streets to seek out the homeless in shelters, transitional housing, wooded areas, under bridges, in vacant buildings and at other locations throughout Essex County. 

Kroeze is one of those volunteers, who ask the homeless a series of questions: How long have you been homeless? Do you have any income? Do you have a health condition? What was the cause of your losing a permanent residence?

The community trusts her, but she said the clients, many of whom are chronically homeless, get frustrated answering the same questions year after year.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development mandates the statewide point-in-time count of the homeless every year, as it helps determine funding for communities attempting to help their homeless residents. 

ESSEX COUNTY

On the night of Jan. 28, a total of 2,214 persons, in 1,619 households in Essex County, were experiencing homelessness.

The county once again ranked tops in the state in the number of homeless, well ahead of second-place Hudson County, which counted 944.

Over the past five years, Essex has seen an overall increase in homelessness of 24 percent, but more are finding places to shelter. Over this five-year period, there was a 17-percent increase in persons staying in transitional housing and a 44-percent increase in those staying in emergency shelters. There was a 6-percent decrease in unsheltered persons between 2016 and 2020. 

WHAT THE SURVEY REVEALED 

However, this year’s count found an increase in the number of unsheltered persons by 23 percent compared to 2019. It also showed a decrease in the number of homeless persons staying in emergency shelters by 9 percent, with an increase in the number of persons in transitional housing by 4 percent.

Most of the homeless were African American, at 72.2 percent, 15.5 percent were Latino or Hispanic, and 9.3 percent were white. 

“Given the disparities present in the data, it is evident that systemic racism plays a significant role in factors contributing to homelessness,” according to the report. 

Of the households counted, the average family size was three persons, 189 families (65 percent) were staying in emergency shelters, 86 families (30 percent) were in transitional housing,  and 14 families (5 percent) were unsheltered. Of the 1,619 families, 289 had a child under the age of 18 and 1,324 were without children.

The age group with the highest number of homeless was 45-54, with 56 percent being male. Twenty-five percent of the homeless were children under the age of 18.

Of those with a disability, most cited a mental-health issue, with a chronic health condition second and substance abuse third. Forty-six percent reported no income, and 13 percent had some income, with the average being $407. Most reported being homeless for three to six months, but the next-highest group reported being homeless for one to three years. 

The top reason cited for losing their home was being asked to leave a shared residence, the second an eviction, and the third a job loss. 

Advocates are predicting a wave of evictions once Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive order suspending them is lifted. The state eviction moratorium will last until two months after Murphy declares an end to the health crisis. 

‘Housing wage’ problems

Every year, the National Low Income Housing Coalition reports on the housing wage (the hourly wage a full-time worker must earn to  afford a modest rental home without spending more than 30 percent of his or her income on housing costs) for all states and counties in the country. 

The report highlights the gap between what renters earn and what it costs to afford a home. This year’s report shows the state as the sixth most expensive place to rent, and housing advocates are urging state leaders not to divert funds needed to create affordable homes. 

In Essex County, 56 percent of housing is rentals, and in Montclair that number is 42 percent. The fair market rate in Essex County for a one-bedroom is $1,218 a month, and $1,483 a month for a two-bedroom. The hourly wage needed for a one-bedroom is $19.88, $29.69 for a two-bedroom. With the minimum wage at $11, a minimum-wage worker would have to work 85 hours a week to afford a one-bedroom in Essex and not spend more than 30 percent of income for rent.

KEEPING FOOD ON THE TABLE

Residents should not have to decide between paying the rent or feeding the family, advocates say. Toni’s Kitchen, a food ministry at St. Luke’s Church on South Fullerton Avenue, pivoted from a soup kitchen to three umbrella programs: hot meals to go for the soup kitchen guests, groceries for families, and a mix of frozen meals and light groceries delivered weekly to shut-in senior citizens.

In 2019, Toni’s Kitchen’s meal counts (including groceries and hot meals) averaged 4,300 a week; it is now serving more than 20,000 meals a week.

In June, Toni’s Kitchen provided over 1,200 families with groceries, fresh produce and dairy; delivered groceries and homemade meals to over 700 senior citizens; and had grab-and-go meals for 75 to 85 homeless and near-homeless residents.

HOW TO HELP

  • Monetary donations to all groups are always welcome.
  • MESH has launched its annual sleeping bag drive, through Nov. 15.
  • Restaurants wanting to donate grab-and-go meals can contact MESH.
  • The Salvation Army is seeking donations of thermal socks and underwear, both men’s and women’s.