A program designed to avoid foreclosures on property owners and eviction of renters who suffered from the impact of Hurricane Sandy apparently did not reach those people who might have benefited most, members of the Hudson County Board of Freeholders learned early this month.
Part of the reason, said Freeholder Bill O’Dea, is because the program was handed over to the county’s Welfare Department for outreach.
“The problem is that the Welfare Department does not have contact with the people who would benefit from this program,” O’Dea said.
As a result, the county could lose more than $1 million in federal aid simply because it has not been used.
A report from the office of the county administrator supplied to the freeholders showed extremely poor outreach. In Jersey City only nine applications had been processed, and in Hoboken, only two.
“Those places were hit hard in Sandy,” O’Dea said.
The report showed that Bayonne Economic Opportunity Foundation had done the best to reach potential clients, resolving more than 31 cases and distributing about $67,000 in aid over three months at the end of 2013. Catholic Charities, which works throughout Hudson County, did slightly better, distributing nearly $70,000 during the same period. Hudson County Welfare offices distributed less than $3,000 during the same time.
“The problem is that the Welfare Department does not have contact with the people who would benefit from this program.” – Freeholder Bill O’Dea
One problem, officials connected with the program said, is that the federal government overseeing the program would not allow them to take out advertisements alerting a wider range of residents about the program.
Seeking to reach out
O’Dea is heading a freeholder committee that met with county officials earlier this week with the hope of reaching out to people who might still need help.
The aim is to develop an outreach program to alert county residents of a federally-funded program that offers up to $15,000 to Sandy-impacted residents who are still behind in their mortgage, rent and utilities. The program can also pay for replacement costs of appliances and furniture not paid for by insurance or FEMA.
O’Dea has criticized the county welfare department last week for not doing effective outreach. He said the meeting was very productive.
“We came up with a lot of inexpensive approaches to get the word out about the program,” he said. “From use of e-mails, to deploying drop boxes for people to submit applications, to meeting with banks and the County Registrar to contact those in pre-foreclosure, and contacting the courts to identify tenants who are facing eviction, these were some of the plans that were developed.”
There are no income restrictions on eligibility, just demonstrating that the need is related to Super Storm Sandy and involves either physical damage or loss of income. The mortgage or rent arrears must be unpaid as of the date of application.
Freeholder E. Junior Maldanado said he has already started using social media to get the word out. Committee chair Freeholder Jeff Dublin suggested that the county use the clergy as a method to distribute applications. The trio also asked the county to consider re-allocating more funds to Bayonne Economic Opportunity Fund, which has spent 65 percent of its $238,000 allocation as of mid-January, as opposed to county welfare, which has only spent five percent of its $601,000 of funding. The $1.2 million in funding is only 25 percent of the $4.7 million potentially available to the county through December 2015.
“It’s clearly use it or lose it,” O’Dea said. “It would be a shame if the state took some of the money back from us.”
The freeholders also criticized the state-imposed gag order on counties forbidding them to publicize the program.
“They should be encouraging the promotion of the program, not trying to control the flow of information,” O’Dea said.
Attending from the county administration were Abe Antun, County Administrator, Family Service Director Ben Lopez, Health and Human Services Director Susan Mearns, and several employees from Welfare. Pre-Applications for funding are available at the freeholder office, 567 Pavonia Ave. - 3rd floor. The phone number is (201) 795-6001.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.