"In my estimation," she said, "that date is nine years and 364 days too late. We need to end this now. We'll have lost a whole other generation of kids by then."
Entitled "Homeless Forum 2003" and held on the campus of New Jersey City University, the countywide symposium's tagline was "Ending Homelessness in Hudson County - Be a Part of the Solution." The meeting brought together mayors, not-for profit organization representatives, religious leaders and educators.
Founded and coordinated by Jersey City Director of Community Development Darice Toon-Bell, the meeting was meant to be "a forum to get input from a variety of sources and to put together a strategy to address the homeless problem in Hudson County," according to Toon-Bell. "This is extremely important to our county," she added.
Mayors David Roberts, Brian Stack and Glenn Cunningham of Hoboken, Union City and Jersey City respectively were on hand to sit on one of two panels planned for the day. Each read a brief introductory statement that outlined what he has done and is going to do to tackle the problem in his town.
While questions came fast and furious, solutions to the problem did not become readily apparent.
Toon-Bell suggested that part of the problem may be simple ignorance. "People don't realize that even one person can make a difference," she said. "The people in our community really do care; they just don't know how to get involved. This forum will hopefully give them the information they need."
With the cold weather and increase in unemployment over the past year, homelessness has been an increasing problem. Bad luck, borderline mental illness, addiction, domestic disputes and other problems can push someone onto the street and drive them further down. One homeless community lives in the Palisades hills near the Union City Viaduct. Before the blizzard two weeks ago, Union City officials found a homeless man there lying on the ground barely conscious, and rescued him.
While only the mayors of Hoboken, Union City and Jersey City were present at Monday's forum, representatives from other Hudson County towns also acted as panelists.
The "morning panel," entitled "Local Government Response to the State of Homelessness in Hudson County," consisted of Richard J. Censullo of North Bergen, who is North Bergen's Health Officer and is a commissioner of the Hudson Regional Health Commission; Jersey City Mayor Glenn D. Cunningham; Mary Jane Desmond of Bayonne, who serves on the Advisory Committee of the newly formed Woman's Resource Center as well as Jersey City Connections, a non-profit HIV/AIDS organization; Hoboken Mayor David Roberts; John Sarnas of Kearny who has been the health officer in that town since 1997; Union City Mayor Brian Stack; and Karyn Urtnowski, who is the Director of Social Services for the town of Secaucus.
As people stepped up to the microphone to address the panel or ask questions, a somewhat adversarial tone descended on the proceedings. It was possible that the speakers were bolstered by the presence of not just one, but three mayors. The panel was forced into a somewhat defensive posture as they were peppered with questions and outright pontifications, asked what they have done for the homeless.
Dan Altilio, the Chairman of the Hudson County Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) who currently administers the Emergency Food and Shelter Program, acted as a moderator for the day's activities and was part of all discussions. Altilio drew applause from the audience when he stated, "Homelessness isn't an infinite problem. It is finite and can be eradicated."
Bayonne's Mary Jane Desmond intoned, "These people [the homeless] are real people with real needs. The worst thing we can do is disconnect people from their sense of 'home.' "
Desmond brought up the subject of documentation (or lack thereof) amongst the homeless population. Said Desmond, "How do you get work when you don't have an address or a Social Security card? This needs to be addressed in an immediate fashion. We need to let these people know that they are validated, that they are real."
Some of the towns represented at the symposium such as Kearny and Secaucus do not suffer from the same issues that the more urban towns in Hudson County do. Geographically, they are somewhat isolated and are more suburban in nature. Kearny's John Sarnas said, "Maybe our problem is a little different. We don't really have a 'homeless problem', so to speak, but we shouldn't treat those that exist elsewhere as ghosts."
Karyn Urtnowski from Secaucus echoed Sarnas's views by stating, "I am surprised [at the scope of the problem]. Secaucus has been somewhat immune, maybe because of our geographic isolation. But what we are seeing more and more of is an increase of 'families on the edge,' one paycheck away from homelessness."
Urtnowski pledged that "Secaucus will do more for those people who most need it."
An interesting exchange occurred during the question-and-answer session when an unnamed 17-year-old homeless teen from Jersey City stepped up to the microphone and asked Jersey City Mayor Glenn Cunningham, "Why are we waiting seven more years to do something about the problem? Where does a teen go to get help and find someplace to live?"
Cunningham responded, "That question brings up an interesting point. It points out the need for 'one-stop'-type service where people can be helped right away and not have to wait for the bureaucracy to work."
The issue of developers and their supposed reticence to build "affordable" or "low-income" housing, opting instead to go where the money is and build luxury buildings meant for affluent customers, was broached by Gloria Wilson, the Director of Affordable Housing in Jersey City. Said Wilson, "We have run up against a problem. The term 'affordable housing' has become an oxymoron. Many developers aren't opting to build affordable housing anymore. All the mayors need to maybe redefine what the 'affordable' part of 'affordable housing' means." Wilson added, "Also, job training - we need to teach marketable skills to these people. I haven't seen that. Too many of them are winding up in menial, minimum-wage jobs. These people need a shot to work in the Gold Coast areas."
Hoboken Mayor Dave Roberts, whose town rests in the heart of Hudson County's "Gold Coast" ( the waterfront running from Bayonne to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee), responded by again announcing that there will be 96 affordable housing units built in Hoboken's northwest redevelopment district. Said Roberts, "The best place to get funding is from the private sector. We need to leverage private business." There were no representatives from "the private sector" present to give their view on Roberts' proposal.
Finally talking about it
The morning segment of the symposium ended at this point, and a catered lunch was served. In an interview before lunch, Jersey City Mayor Glenn Cunningham stated, "I think the key here is that we have a lot of people pulling, but not pulling together. It's proving to be very difficult to get the help directly to the people. I think people expect government to produce results, as they well should. But everybody needs to pull together, and not just government, but the private sector too."
The day's second half, entitled "Discussion of Strategies for Addressing Homelessness in Hudson County" was somewhat less tense than the first half, but if concrete answers were expected, they weren't proffered. Some panelists and speakers seemed intent on highlighting and illuminating the problems, but suggestions for remedies were much more difficult to come by.
Henrietta Johnson, director of the Medical and Social Services for the Homeless (MASSH), did offer some suggestions. "The community needs to come together," she said. "The private sector and government need to come together. The media needs to profile these families and humanize them."
And while the subject of homeless families and children was reiterated throughout the day, the plight of the mentally ill and drug-addicted homeless was not discussed. It could be argued that a significant portion of Hudson County's homeless suffer from mental illness or drug addiction, making "affordable housing" an afterthought when most of these people need more immediate help with day-to-day survival and treatment or more complex responses.
In a telephone interview, Toon-Bell said, "Well, we did want to have more discussion about it. The mentally ill people especially need what we call 'permanent supported housing,' and we definitely need more of this type of housing."
Toon-Bell didn't rate the symposium's success in black-and-white terms. Said Toon- Bell, "It's a big issue. The conversation will continue. Yesterday's symposium was meant to 'put homelessness on the radar.' You will see follow-ups to this. We will strive to get an even broader spectrum of people to participate in dialogue to address the problem."
"Most importantly," added Toon- Bell, "what we wanted to do is put a human face on who the homeless are in Hudson County. Our picture of who the homeless are most certainly doesn't fit with who the homeless really are."
For the articles the Hudson Reporter newspapers have written on the issue, go to www.hobokenreporter.com, www.unioncityreporter.com or www.secaucusreporter.com, and click on the words "advanced search." Fill in the required fields, and use the keyword "homeless."