After Hurricane Sandy, NJ’s Homeless Population at Greater Risk

Hank Kalet | November 5, 2012 | More Issues, Sandy, Social
Shelters and soup kitchens across the state sustain significant damage from Superstorm

Sandy relief
The devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy as it roared through New Jersey last week was impossible to miss: multimillion-dollar homes collapsed like a house of cards, boats berthed on NJ Transit train tracks, much of the Jersey shore reduced to rubble . . .

But the so-called Superstorm also did its share of silent — though no less traumatic — damage.

Public agencies and private groups that help some of the state’s most vulnerable populations are seeing an increase in patrons in the wake of the storm. They’re also dealing with power outages and storm related damage of their own.

The result: More stress on an emergency relief network that was already stretched to its limits.

Tanya R. Bryan, executive director of the NJ Coalition to End Homelessness, said she has been in contact with several agencies that work with the homeless around the state. Many were left without power and some experienced flooding, while many have not been reachable by phone or email, especially in the southern counties.

One, the Atlantic City Rescue Mission, the state’s largest shelter, is just a block off the boardwalk in the seaside resort town. Bryan said she was unable to reach officials there, and calls by NJ Spotlight were not returned on Friday.

The Shore Fellowship Church off Ocean Heights Avenue in Egg Harbor Township took in approximately 300 residents of the shelter, according to the Press of Atlantic City.

“A lot of the folks in the south we haven’t heard from,” Bryan said. “They have no electric, no power.”

The coalition “had some funding to provide emergency shelter to folks who were homeless prior to Sandy,” which they hoped would get some off the street and out of the way of the storm, but it is difficult to know how effective that was.

Shelter From the Storm

Even with the pre-storm work, it is clear that the storm is straining an already stressed network of emergency aid, she said. It is too early for an accurate accounting, but from what she is hearing there are more people in need of services than before the storm.

Flooding in Hackensack along River Street has increased the volume of people needing help, Bryan said. The Bergen County Housing, Health and Human Services Center, a shelter in Hackensack, is working with the Red Cross to help the displaced there, she said.

Agencies like Elijah’s Promise Soup Kitchen in New Brunswick and Homefront, which works with families on the brink of homelessness, lost power but continued to serve those in need.

“Power [is] out at both of our facilities,” Lisanne Finston, executive director of Elijah’s Promise, said in an email on Friday. “Volunteers and staff cooking by candlelight, flashlight. [It’s] like a MASH unit.”

Connie Mercer, president of Homefront, said her agency lost power at its large center in Lawrence Township, while also taking in about 40 women from the Trenton Rescue Mission for a couple of nights at its Trenton shelter, so that the mission could accommodate everyone looking for space.

Mary Gay Abbott-Young, chief executive officer for the Rescue Mission, said the city was concerned about sheltering people in the building’s upper floors during the storm,

“The women would come to the Rescue Mission as they normally would, and we would transfer them with a Homefront bus and two Rescue Mission vans to Homefront. Then our staff would pick them up in the morning,” she said. “It was like we did it everyday, it went so well. Had it not been for Homefront doing that, I am not sure how we would have been able to use the space in the most efficient manner.”

The Rescue Mission still managed to put up 200 people at its Carroll Street facility, even as it lost part of the roof on its warehouse and administration building — which added a layer of complexity to the response. City and insurance company officials responded quickly and the roof was expected to be repaired this weekend.

Mercer said a lot of the hotels and motels along the Route 1 corridor in Mercer County, where many poor families are housed by a variety of agencies, were without power. Homefront packed food for the residents, which “meant putting food bags together in the dark because we lost power. We had to do it with flashlights in the dark warehouse.”

Abbott-Young said that Homefront’s efforts were typical of those made by the Mercer County agencies. The Rescue Mission, for instance, prepared enough food for those it sheltered and also for those expected to be housed at the city shelter. And the Mercer Street Friends, one of the larger food pantries in the city, offered refrigerator space.

“The coordination is what makes Mercer County so very special and allows us to accomplish many of the things we try to do,” she said

Mercer said she has not seen much of an increase in people seeking shelter since Monday’s storm, she does expect a spike in the coming weeks after other resources — the generosity of family and friends — is exhausted by those who now find themselves without a place to live.

“The folks we deal with are living on the edge,” she said, “living paycheck to paycheck. These are folks who cannot sustain a week’s lost paycheck never mind two or three.”

Feeding the Hungry

Community Food Bank of New Jersey, in Hillside, began working with several other agencies — the New Jersey Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, the Red Cross, and the Salvation Army — before the storm to ensure distribution of food to those in need, according to a press release. The food bank is providing about 100,000 pounds of food a day to those displaced by the storm, despite losing power at its warehouse for several days.

The “unprecedented demand” has resulted in supplies of numerous staple items — canned meals, soup, vegetables, fruit, tuna, shelf-stable milk, peanut butter, cereal, granola bars, diapers, and baby food — running low.

The NJ Coalition’s Bryan said many of the smaller food banks and pantries are in worse shape.

“Food banks were relying on individual donors and, at this point, a lot of the inventory may have been lost so they are suffering on a whole other level now,” she said.

In Newark, Bryan said, where the largest number of homeless people reside, Mayor Corey Booker has dispatched staff to the areas where they usually congregate, like Penn Station. About 30 homeless men and women were moved to shelters at the JFK Recreation Center and Good Will.

Bryan, who served as Booker’s advisor on homelessness issues prior to joining the NJ Coalition, said faith-based groups have stepped in to help, by providing meals and warm locations.

Essex and other counties also are doing an inventory of emergency shelters and transitional housing — the facilities that shelter the homeless and those at risk of becoming homeless — to see how those facilities fared. They also are trying to get a more accurate sense of who was homeless before the storm and who needs the most urgent assistance.

“We want to see what the needs are and triage so we don’t have more people end up on the street and we can adequately place them,” she said.

“It can be difficult to tell who is who,” she added. “Everyone is mingled together because everyone is displaced, so you don’t have a sense of who the homeless individuals and homeless families are. If a transitional housing facility experienced flooding, the residents went to same place as those who lost their homes.”

Complicating aid efforts, Bryan said, are budget cuts. Social service agencies are seeing less aid from local, state, and federal governments and “have to do more with less and now have to seek additional funding, which places an additional strain on staff to make sure they can adequately service their constituents.”

Given the damage around the state, the social service agencies have their work cut out for them, she said.

“When we look at the damage in Ocean, Atlantic, and Cape May counties — these areas were destroyed and this has a huge impact on the social services agencies,” she said. “In Bergen, you have towns like Moonachie, Lodi. and Carlsdadt, towns where people are relying on social services for the first time. A lot of people who have never needed social services now need them and it is placing an even greater strain on services.”

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