With less than 24 hours left before officers from the Hudson County Sheriff’s Office officially evicted Carey [not her real name] and her daughter from the apartment they have lived in for more than seven years, Carey scrambled to find help, seeking anyone who might keep them from being locked out and cut off from their possessions.
Saddled with a number of issues, least of all the promised job that never materialized, Carey fell more and more behind on her rent. She kept hoping that the store she worked for earlier would re-open and call her back, or she could find another job elsewhere. But as the months passed, she found neither a job nor any other kind of help.
Even after being warned that she would be evicted, she hoped for a last minute reprieve, but when none came, she went to City Hall, where she was directed to the Bayonne Equal Opportunity Foundation. She hoped to take advantage of a state homeless prevention program, designed to keep people from being evicted.
But because Carey received monthly child support payments, she didn’t meet the criteria of the program. She was also too far behind on rent.
“Not all of my employees are social workers.” -- Ben Lopez
Carol Ann Wilson, director of Social Services for Hudson County, said her office sometimes will try and negotiate with the landlord to establish a payment plan to deal with the back rent.
But with no job or income, Carey wasn’t likely to get anything negotiated.
At that point, she still hadn’t reached any county officials, although several freeholders were already calling ahead on her behalf. She drove to Jersey City to plead her case before the directors of Family Services and Human Services departments, using up previous gasoline she still needed to seek work – only to find that when she arrived at County Plaza, the clerk downstairs would not let her upstairs to see either of the directors.
“This is not something new,” said Freeholder Bill O’Dea in response to the circumstance with the clerk. “We had several complaints about the same thing.”
By nightfall, Carey and her daughter were officially homeless. The apartment with their possessions in it was sealed off by sheriff’s officers, leaving them with only the clothing on their backs.
In the current economy, many families are struggling to survive.
At the Oct. 9 county freeholders’ caucus meeting, O’Dea called for an outside auditor to evaluate and find solutions for the challenges of the county’s homeless prevention system.
O’Dea said he knew a family that was likely being evicted on the very day of the caucus.
“They went to family services where they were evaluated and they were told they were eligible for $16 a month in food stamps,” he said. “And they couldn’t be helped with anything else. This person has physical limitations that limited how much he could work ... I’m not faulting the directors. I’m faulting the case workers, who say, ‘Sorry, you’re not eligible, have a nice day.’ That’s not what we should be doing when we have all this money that we’re supposed to be using on programs. If that family becomes homeless, it is finding them a place to get into an apartment that is even more difficult.”
O’Dea asked why county officials charged with homeless prevention aren’t more proactive in identifying some other sources of funding someone might be eligible for. He said the agencies that oversee these programs should be seeking alternative ways to help them, especially when they do not meet the criteria for some programs.
Workers not helpful
Freeholder Jose Munoz said he’s heard complaints in West New York as well. In one case, senior citizens called the city and were told that the person who speaks Spanish wasn’t there and that they should call back.
“They then hung up on the person,” Munoz said. “I have directed other complaints to [county welfare] Director [Ben] Lopez. Perhaps we should bring some professional to tell us what’s wrong and what is wrong and what is right so we can fix it, similar to what we did in Hudson County Correctional Facility.”
O’Dea agreed that have some group come in and do true efficiency audits on the programs and departments.
“These audits are very comprehensive and very detailed, they go in and they look to see if people are properly trained, are people providing all the services to client, and what they do when they are not able to address a client’s needs.”
Dublin said he had met with Lopez to discuss some of these issues and that Lopez has met with the staff.
“So there should be some improvement,” Dublin said. “But people who come there for service aren’t there because they want to be there. They are there because of their circumstances. We should always to take time to try and assist them as much as possible.”
O’Dea all the case workers need to be properly trained about all the programs.
“Let’s be realistic,” he said. “Most of the clients are the neediest of the needy, most clients don’t know what they are eligible for. They’re desperate. They’re just trying to get help and they expect when they come here to get every potential opportunity possible, whether it’s in our agency or referred to an outside agency we fund or may be even one we don’t fund.”
What happened to Carey?
As for Carey, she was able to get some help after she and her daughter were evicted.
With the help of Assemblyman and Bayonne Public Safety Director Jason O’Donnell, the two were housed at the Hudson Motel for the weekend, as public officials scrambled behind the scenes to see what kind of help they could provide as far as a long-term solution.
Monday came without a resolution.
The county had moved Carey and her daughter to a motel along Tonnelle Avenue in Jersey City, one about which a Jersey City councilperson had complained about to Freeholder Jeff Dublin because it was not well maintained. The entire corridor over the years has been cited for other problematic issues such as prostitution.
Rather than subject her daughter to these problems and have to drive from Jersey City back to Bayonne to bring her daughter to school, Carey arranged for a family member to house her daughter while Carey continued to seek out a more permanent solution, hoping she would be able to get back into her old apartment.
After a week went by, Carey again faced the prospect of having no roof over her head as public officials scrambled to make calls finally to charity shelters, eventually finding a slot in a women’s shelter in Jersey City.
Lopez argued that not all county workers are trained to handle the issues.
“Not all of my employees are social workers,” Lopez said. “If an individual is a general assistance recipient, if the client doesn’t tell the worker what their problems are, the worker only does a calculation, based on what the regulations are. That’s what they’re trained to do. They are not trained to be case managers. If a person has a case manager, he’s supposed to go to the case manager, not to the income maintenance worker.”
Freeholder Chairman Eliu Rivera said the county should work with the unions to allow workers to explore more options for clients.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.