By KATE ALBRIGHT
for Montclair Local
The worst of winter was over when lockdown restrictions began in March 2020, but those experiencing homelessness in Montclair no longer had access to many of the places they’d usually use for daytime shelter. Libraries, businesses and the organizations directly serving homeless people were closed up.
Those without shelter didn’t even have access to bathrooms at first — prompting the township to put up porta-potties a few days into the lockdown. Michele Kroeze, the business manager who oversees The Salvation Army Montclair Citadel’s social services programs, estimates 12 to 20 people are without shelter in Montclair.
Anne Mernin, director of Toni’s Kitchen, the food ministry of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, said, “You can just imagine being outdoors, 24-7, months on end. That’s really what this population has gone through.”
But for the last several weeks, options have opened up to provide respite during the day — and, when necessary, shelter from the elements. With initial funding from the Partners for Health Foundation, The Schumann Fund for New Jersey and The Montclair Foundation, and then a $10,000 award from Montclair Township, the The Salvation Army has been providing daytime drop-in service at its own facility, and Montclair Emergency Services for Hope is providing staffing and shelter at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair. Toni’s is helping with planning and administering the grant.
Mernin said the project is a product of discussions among the nonprofit subcommittee of the Mayor’s COVID-19 Recovery Task Force. She credited Fourth Ward Councilman David Cummings for his role in securing the funds.
She said the goal of the joint effort is to make sure there’s always somewhere to go.
“The library isn’t open. Our dining room is now a warehouse. People aren’t letting anyone indoors,” she said. “The Salvation Army was really great. They were having people come in, one to two at a time, to warm up for 20 minutes.” But the new partnership goes beyond the services the organizations could offer alone.
There are some long-standing options for overnight stays as well. The Citadel’s Cornerstone House provides housing for up to 60 days for individuals and families in a drug- and alcohol-free environment (though Kroeze said if someone’s working on a plan toward permanent housing “we’re not going to put them out” once the 60 days are up). Essex County recently provided a $20,000 grant to support The Salvation Army’s shelter services.
MESH offers overnight shelter at Union Baptist Church when temperatures are at 32 degrees or below, receiving its guests from 8 to 11 p.m. Montclair recently awarded the church $35,000 to support shelter there.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, MESH could house 18 to 20 guests at the church; with current restrictions, it’s limited to 10 guests.
But the temperature requirements are confusing for those without housing, MESH Executive Director Gwen Parker Ames said.
“They don’t know when it’s 32 degrees and … they’re disappointed when we have to say, ‘I’m sorry, it’s not 32 degrees. It’s 39 degrees, and we’re not going to open up,’” she said.
Dave Poliseno has been without a home for the last four or five years, he said. He often sleeps outdoors, what he calls “urban camping.” Occasionally, a friend lets him sleep, take a bath or watch TV at her house.
He is also a frequent guest of The Salvation Army. When friends invited Poliseno to lunch at The Salvation Army nearly 20 years ago, he was surprised at the invitation and didn’t know what to expect. He liked what he found and has been attending ever since — for meals, for programs like karaoke and bowling, and sometimes for Sunday services.
He raves about The Salvation Army’s cooking: “The lady in charge went to culinary school. I mean, these people know how to cook!”
But for Poliseno, time spent at The Salvation Army is more than meals.
“Everyone in my family is gone. They passed on, moved out of state, you know? And I think these people are like my family, and they treat you like you’re their family,” he said.
Kroeze described the core of how The Salvation Army serves: “It’s all about trust. It’s all about building relationships. They need to be able to trust us.”
The Salvation Army’s drop-in center is fundamental in establishing that trust. It’s where case managers share resources and help people get housed. It’s where they provide programs that include health awareness, mental health checks, resume writing and job readiness training.
So when the pandemic hit, closing the center’s doors was “heart-wrenching,” Kroeze said.
Access to showers was the one indoor service The Salvation Army never paused. And because it was the clients’ only time indoors, The Salvation Army allowed them to stay for up to an hour, she said.
With doors closed, case workers continued to see clients through open windows, and were able to get several clients housed. Nobody gave up, Kroeze said.
Somewhere to feel safe
In January of this year, The Salvation Army opened its doors for pickup meals and as a warming center. The staff set a TV up in the gym with chairs spread out for social distancing. Clients can see case workers in the gym by asking the receptionist in the adjacent office.
Case workers have also registered those interested in vaccinations. A man who gave his name as Jim, and who has been homeless since 2012, is one of those clients who is scheduled for a vaccination.
“The Salvation Army is golden in a lot of ways. If you have needs and you go there and express them, they’ll do what they can to help you out,” he said.
Jim came to Montclair in August 2020, from a squat in East Orange. His primary reason for coming to Montclair was to feel safe.
“I’m not afraid when I was sleeping on the porch over at The Salvation Army. … This is important to me. I’m 65 and I’ll be 66 in May — if I make it that far. I’m hobbled going about on the stick [cane]. And I don’t like the idea that I would need to defend myself and not be able to. I don’t have any confidence in that skill anymore,” Jim said.
Having worked for 48 years, 20 of those with the postal service, Jim never anticipated being without stable housing. He said he got there through “poor luck and poor judgment.”
Currently, Jim resides at the Cornerstone House, which provides shelter for individuals or families who do not qualify for welfare but have some financial resources, whether through a job, retirement income, Social Security income or disability insurance.
However, his stay with Cornerstone will soon be over. Jim plans to move out of state when he receives his stimulus check, to search for affordable housing.
He would like to stay in Montclair, but “the price of a room where you would share a bathroom and share a kitchen is the same money that you would pay elsewhere for a studio apartment, with a bathroom and a kitchen. So that is rough,” Jim said.
Pre-COVID, Cornerstone could house up to three families and 10 singles. With the pandemic, it was limited to two families and six singles. However, a room that had been set aside for quarantining has not been needed, and is currently in use by a family.
Cornerstone is designed to be an evening shelter only. But during the height of the pandemic, it remained open 24 hours. As restrictions have lifted, it has returned to its pre-COVID schedule of closing from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. — The Salvation Army hopes its guests will use their days to pursue or attend employment, and to work on next steps toward more permanent housing.
One step at a time
One woman, employed by Amazon as a Whole Foods shopper, came very close to losing her job because she lacked child care for her 3-year-old daughter. To protect her privacy, Montclair Local has agreed to identify her by the fictitious name “Jane Smith.”
Before sheltering in Cornerstone, Smith was living with her child’s father in a situation she called toxic and abusive.
In the fall of 2020, at her uncle’s suggestion, Smith began picking up dinner from MESH, which was distributing meals in the parking lot of The Salvation Army. There, she met MESH staff member Joseph Tyson. He connected her with Ames, the director.
Over the next couple of months Ames helped Smith find a spot in Cornerstone. She then connected Smith to Programs for Parents, a nonprofit organization that helped Smith find child care and is assisting her with the cost.
Smith was nervous about leaving her child with people she doesn’t know during the pandemic, but her daughter is adjusting well, which is allowing her to pick up more shifts as a Whole Foods shopper, she said.
Now that she is in a safe shelter and has child care, Smith’s biggest concern is securing formal custody of her daughter. Once she has a court date, Ames will refer her to a Montclair group that provides legal aid to women who lack resources.
In the meantime, Smith is mindful of the quickly approaching date that ends her stay at Cornerstone. She has entered a lottery for a spot in an affordable housing complex in Montclair, and is following up with all of the leads Ames sends her way.
“Because everything is unpredictable, we don’t know the potential of what could come next, and that’s what makes me anxious sometimes. I’m like, what’s going to happen next? What’s going to be the next step, the next journey, the next situation?” Smith said.
Ames connected her with a therapist, with whom Smith speaks weekly.
Smith’s advice to anyone who may be going through a similar experience is to break things into little steps. By talking with people around you, you will discover what resources may be available to you, she said.
“Until I realized I gotta get out of this place and the situation, I can’t live here. Then I started going to Salvation Army and going to Toni’s Kitchen and different places and started talking to people and they gave me resources, people, names and some numbers. And I started calling and you know, it really helped,” she said.