A bone-chilling wind blew across Journal Square during the night of Jan. 28, the date of the official 2014 annual homeless count. Commuters rushed out of the PATH station with faces wrapped in scarves, gloved hands thrust deep in pockets. The steamed windows of the Burger King on Summit Avenue showed huddled figures inside, as did the Dunkin Donuts just up the street.
Volunteers from across the county braved the cold to count the number of people who lived mostly on the streets and had no warm place to go. From the tip of North Bergen to the bottom of Bayonne, volunteers sought out places where homeless people cluster in order to get an idea of the total number of Hudson County’s homeless.
Homeless camps come and go, and for a time last winter, a small group lived a few feet from Kennedy Boulevard in Jersey City, in the weeds near Route 139. Journal Square is another popular area. Homeless camps exist along the Palisades in Union City near the viaduct in Hoboken, and along the lower cliffs beneath Christ Hospital in Jersey City.
Two weeks ago, a man was found dead, face-down in the mud near a camp at James J. Braddock North Hudson Park in North Bergen.
One mentally disabled man in Jersey City Heights became homeless this winter when his mother – who had taken care of him – died, and he was forced to begin living in one of the local parks.
Although the number of homeless has declined from last year, 2013 – 2014 was a particularly rough winter.
The results of January’s count were released two weeks ago, showing that the homeless population has dropped steadily in Hudson County, with the exception of 2012, which showed a sharp rise. The numbers declined from 1,779 in 2010 to 821 in 2014. In 2012, the number of people counted was 2,087. The numbers are used when applying for state and federal funding.
“This isn’t accurate because there are many hidden homeless we don’t know about it.” – Freeholder Chairman Jose Munoz
But there were other cold nights, and people on the streets who have mental and physical illnesses. So what will be done to help them?
Count authorized by HUD
NJ Counts is an annual point-in-time census of the homeless, a statewide survey in communities throughout the state, investigating whether people find shelter and where, what they need, and what factors contributed to their becoming homeless.
Government organizations, community groups, and volunteers searched throughout the county on that January night to compile the count.
But part of the variation in numbers may have to do with factors like the weather on a particular night.
“This isn’t accurate, because there are many hidden homeless we don’t know about,” said Freeholder Chairman Jose Munoz, who heads the Freeholder Homelessness Task Force. “In places like West New York, many people are being displaced by new development. In some cases, people move in with friends and sleep on their couches, and we can’t count them. They are homeless as well.”
The annual count covered a number of areas that included sheltered and unsheltered homeless. But the report does not include all of the information about those who may be at risk of homelessness or precariously housed, or even those who might be considered homeless under other federal criteria.
The count differed from previous years because the count for sheltered homeless was taken from New Jersey’s Homeless Management Information System. Unsheltered homeless numbers were collected through a variety of other methods. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires an annual count of sheltered residents, but only requires a count of unsheltered people every two years. The report may be skewed downward by the fact that this is not a year when unsheltered homeless were to be counted under HUD’s rules.
Twenty-six degrees is a rule
“The winter of 2013 to 2014 was particularly cold, setting record low temperatures in parts of New Jersey,” the report said, and the Code Blue distinction sent many into shelters. Activist Riaz Wahid said in Hudson County the homeless are brought to temporary shelters once the temperature drops to 26 degrees Farenheit.
A warming center had been set up for the homeless at Pershing Field in Jersey City, but was closed down prior to the start of the cold.
“People complained about the center being used for the homeless,” Wahid said. The facility services a number of community programs.
Freeholder Bill O’Dea found a new location in Kearny that was used routinely over the winter, with homeless being bused there.
“Because the point in time count represents only one night during the last 10 days of January, it is widely accepted that the PIT will undercount the overall homeless population,” the report said. “Undercounting may occur due to difficulty finding those living on the street, incomplete information for people who do not agree to complete the survey, a shortage of volunteers to cover a geographic area, or homeless persons choosing not to seek housing services on the night of the count.”
There are three homeless shelters in the county – the Palisades Emergency Residence Corporation (PERC) in Union City, the Hoboken Homeless Shelter, and St. Lucy’s in Jersey City. There are also some programs specifically for women and children. But these shelters do not have room for all of the homeless in the county.
A general downward trend in Hudson County
On Jan. 28, the survey reported 821 homeless people in Hudson County, 155 of whom were considered chronic homeless, and 166 of whom were unsheltered on the night of the count. “Chronically homeless” is anyone that has been continuously homeless for a year or more, or at least four times in the past three years, according to HUD’s definition.
“Over the last five years, chronic homeless persons has trended upward, and has risen year over year since 2011,” the report said. “Since 2013, however, the number of unsheltered chronically homeless persons has decreased by 7.5 percent.”
Unsheltered fell from 285 last year to 166 this year, but those in emergency shelter rose from 455 in 2013 to 488 this year.
The count showed that 168 of the homeless were children under 18.
Of the adult homeless, 71 ranged between 18 and 24 years of age, with 580 over the age of 24. The report said that 536 of the homeless were male and 285 female. About 47 percent of the homeless were white, about 45 percent, African-American, and the rest of mixed races. About 45 percent reported having some type of disability. Among the disabled, about 48 percent reported substance abuse disorders. The report said about 57 people said they were the victim of domestic violence. Veterans accounted for about 35 people in the count, 11 fewer than in 2013.
Of the total homeless population counted, about 44 percent had no source of income. Slightly more than 41 percent of the homeless counted received food stamps. Less than a third had Medicaid.
The biggest cause of homelessness, according to the report, was loss of job income, followed by being asked to leave a shared residence, eviction, release from jail, drug or alcohol abuse, and other factors.
Munoz said county’s ability to help the homeless is limited.
“We need more low income housing,” he said. “But homelessness will be a problem as long as unemployment remains high.”
The Hudson County Homeless Task Force was established about 12 years ago by then-Freeholder Brian Stack. It works with the shelters in Jersey City, Hoboken, and Union City. The county, according to O’Dea, also deals with a number of agencies from around the county, including Bayonne Equal Opportunity Foundation, the North Hudson Community Action Corporation, and others. The county also has a number of programs designed to prevent homelessness.
A number of communities such as Bayonne and Weehawken have programs that provide temporary emergency housing for homeless.
Those who need shelter can call the Hudson County Homeless Hotline at (800) 624-0287.
A spokesperson for Jersey City said the city has taken steps to help the homeless as well.
“The administration is engaging with Jersey City and Hudson County providers of services for homeless individuals to develop a comprehensive inventory that would eventually be updated and managed by the Resident Response Center (RRC),” said Jennifer Morrill, city spokeswoman. “We are also developing an education plan to best coordinate behavioral health, mental health and homeless services in order to create a stronger safety net for those who need these services. We are also looking for ways the City can partner with the Serial Inebriate Program (SIP) at the Jersey City Medical Center.”
Wahid said homeless people face a number of additional obstacles, including not being allowed in some shelters when they are filled to capacity or when the homeless do not meet the shelter’s criteria.
“Some shelters do not want people to come back [after they’ve stayed for a certain length of time],” Wahid said.
Wahid is part of a group of volunteers who feed the homeless directly, a network of businesses and churches that work together to provide warm meals to those living on the streets.
“If we run out of food, we buy pizza,” Wahid said. “We have an agreement with Papa John’s in Hoboken.”
The group provides meals several times a day in conjunction with the Jersey City Asian Association and the Fountain of Salvation Church in Jersey City. The church cooks the meals and the volunteers deliver to homeless hotspots around the county.
“Some of the people tell me it is the only good meal they get,” Wahid said. “If we give them money, some only use it get drunk. This is what they told me.”
To donate to this cause, people can give money to the Jersey City Asian Merchants Association, which is tax deductible.
“Or if they want to contribute food items, we need 600 lbs. of rice, 150 lbs. of beans, 1,000 lbs. of chicken quarters and 2,000 bottles of water,” Wahid said. “We can direct them to buy at discounted prices from wholesalers.”
To contact Wahid or donate to the association, call (201) 669-7608.
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.