This is the third report of ‘Homelessness in the Garden State,’ a special Jersey Digs series focusing on the homelessness crisis affecting New Jerseyans throughout the state.
Where did you go to sleep the night of January 23rd? From the ‘tent cities’ near the Jersey Shore to abandoned houses in the capital city, thousands of Garden State residents were asked that question yesterday as part of a nationwide effort to determine just how severe this country’s homelessness crisis is.
From midnight to 11:59 p.m. on January 24th, Mercer County participated in the annual Point-in-Time Count in order to figure out the number of individuals who are homeless within its borders and how each of them ended up in their current situation.
The Point-in-Time Count is required by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in order for statistics to be gathered in regards to the state of homelessness and poverty nationwide and to determine the amount of funding that will be issued to organizations that address the issue.
Volunteers from local organizations and institutions such as the City of Trenton’s CEAS Center, Anchor House, the Trenton Police Department, Oaks Integrated Care, The College of New Jersey, the Veterans Administration, and the Rescue Mission of Trenton participated in this year’s project, which was led by local leaders such as Ben Thornton of Anchor House and Mercer County Department of Human Services Director Marygrace Billek.
Jersey Digs followed along as groups were sent to locations throughout the city of Trenton and surrounding suburbs in Mercer County in order to look for sheltered and unsheltered homeless individuals. Sites included local shelters like the Rescue Mission of Trenton as well as the Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park towpath, the Trenton Transit Center, the Trenton Free Public Library, Downtown Trenton, the corner of Cass Street and Route 129, and the South Broad Street corridor. One person was even found to be homeless behind a supermarket in suburban Lawrence Township, while others were surveyed near abandoned houses, railroad overpasses, and employment agencies.
”We want to make sure that those individuals who choose not to come indoors have the same opportunities as sheltered individuals to become housed,” said Billek.
At the Trenton Free Public Library, volunteers from Oaks Integrated Care and the Veterans Administration learned that many sheltered and unsheltered people experiencing homelessness spend the daylight hours reading inside the library. One of these individuals, Lisa, told the group that she became homeless after her husband was incarcerated. Lisa stated she was evicted from her home in neighboring Hamilton Township and her children were put into foster care.
”Not everybody’s out there because of drugs,” she explained.
Until last week, Lisa spent the last four months living in an abandoned school bus in the Old Trenton neighborhood with other homeless individuals. She told Jersey Digs that in the recent cold weather, her feet became frostbitten while staying in the bus. Fortunately, she was recently accepted into a transitional housing program and now has a temporary place to stay indoors near a local soup kitchen.
When asked about her new living space, Lisa said that “It feels great. It’s nice and warm!”
A few blocks away, Councilman Duncan Harrison, Jr., the Trenton Police Department, and the CEAS Center set up a table at the corner of East State and South Broad Streets in the heart of the capital city in order to greet homeless residents and distribute surveys. According to Janet Porter, the director of the center, around 36 individuals stopped by to complete a survey for the Point-in-Time Count.
Every person who was surveyed was asked how long they have been experiencing homelessness, where the last place was that they had their own home, what, if any, benefits or income they receive, where they are currently residing, and other questions. Some told volunteers that they are staying in the Rescue Mission’s shelter while others are in transitional housing or are going between homes of their friends. However, it was clear that transitioning into permanent housing is still a difficult task, especially because of the long waiting lists for public housing projects in cities across the state.
One person who was surveyed was a 44-year-old Trentonian who asked not to be identified. He told Jersey Digs that due to his disability, “I can’t work so I’m always broke.”
This resident stated that a friend of his just allowed him to stay temporarily in his apartment.
“I’m taking advantage of that for now just to have a home base where I can have some mail sent to me and stuff like that,” he explained.
Like many others in the city, he often wanders around the streets and notices vacant buildings, adding that “Everywhere you go, every block, there’s at least 10 to 12 abandoned houses and they’ve been that way since I was a kid.” He envisions that such properties could be rehabilitated and converted into boarding houses for homeless residents.
During the count, he and all participants in the Trenton area received a newspaper, a guide to local resources, food, and other items. Many were encouraged to visit venues such as the Anchor House’s Anchor Link outreach program and computer lab on South Broad Street or the CEAS Center on Perry Street for additional assistance. Last year, according to Porter, her center served around 300 Trentonians. Officials are hoping that more homeless residents will come to the facility this year.
In order to continue to serve this population, the CEAS Center has partnered with Detective Walter Rivera of the Trenton Police Department in order to encourage individuals experiencing homelessness to stop by the center’s offices to learn about resources and possible future housing options.
Detective Rivera, who assisted with yesterday’s event, told Jersey Digs that before the CEAS Center partnership, “We knew that the individuals out here were looking for some kind of service but they didn’t know where to go.” Now, he stated that the Trenton Police are spreading the word at projects such as this and year-round in order to not only assist each individual with housing, but also to allow them to truly become part of the local community again. According to Detective Rivera, these efforts build trust with citizens and can help fight crime while improving quality of life.
Although the exact number of people surveyed in Mercer County or throughout New Jersey is not yet available, it is clear from the 2018 Point-in-Time that despite a decline last year in the number of reported homeless individuals, homelessness continues to remain an epidemic in the cities, the suburbs, and the countryside of one of America’s most expensive states.