Profile: Attorney Forms Advocacy Group to Help the Homeless in New Jersey

Hank Kalet | June 4, 2014 | Profiles
Inspired by his father’s experience in the Great Depression, he represented occupants of ‘Tent City’ in Lakewood

Jeffrey J. Wild

Who he is: Jeffrey J. Wild, 54, attorney and advocate for the homeless.

Job: Attorney and partner with the Lowenstein Sandler law firm in Roseland; founder and board member with the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness.

Why he matters: Wild represented the residents of a tent encampment for the homeless in Lakewood, known as Tent City. He won an injunction against the demolition of the camp in 2012 and later won a consent decree guaranteeing a year of housing to residents of the camp in exchange for the camp being closed. The closure is in process. He also founded the NJ Coalition to End Homelessness, which is a nonprofit that advocates to combat homelessness in the state.

The coalition, which launched in early 2012, initially distributed rapid-rehousing grants but is now focused on advocacy efforts, including addressing gaps in the state welfare system that allow people to fall into homelessness and working with partners to create an emergency shelter and housing program in Ocean County.

Focus on Ocean County: Ocean County does not have a central, temporary shelter for the homeless and instead uses an array of low-cost hotels and motels that cost the county millions of dollars, Wild says. A central county shelter would both be more cost-effective and do a better job of moving people into housing.

The coalition, he said, has created a consortium of nonprofits and religious groups to work with the governor and with municipal, county and state governments to create something modeled on what has been working in Bergen County and elsewhere.

“We are looking for best practices, what would work in any county and asking are there differences among the counties,” he said. “You can’t just replicate what is being done in Bergen (where a state-of-the-art facility was build five years ago). It must be customized to the needs of county.”

The coalition would be starting from scratch in Ocean, which does not have a housing authority or a history of focusing on its homelessness problems.

“I think of the role of the coalition as like a (film) producer,” he said. “The producer brings together all of the ingredients — a site that is viable, construction money, an experienced manager, community support, a lot of different ingredients.”

Looking beyond Ocean County: While most of New Jersey’s counties have emergency shelters, there is no way a shelter system can be made robust enough to address the problem, Wild said.

“Just on one night, last year (in January), just looking for people who could be counted on that one night, there were 11,818 homeless men, women and children counted in the state of New Jersey.”

That census – known as the Point-In-Time Survey, a federally mandated tally of the homeless – only counts those who can be found, those in temporary shelters or in areas where the homeless normally congregate. The census does not take into account people who are forced to live with others.

Emergency assistance and shelter programs are supposed to help by providing temporary stipends and a place to stay for those in need, but many who end up homeless do not qualify for the aid. Applicants can be turned away if they had a drug conviction up to 20 years ago or if they earn more than $210 a month

The ‘housing first’ model: Wild and the coalition are backers of the “housing first” model of addressing homelessness. Under the philosophy in use in most of the state’s more northern counties, the homeless are moved into housing as quickly as possible and provided with an array of support services. The theory is that the stability of having a home will make it easier for the formerly homeless to address other problems, such as substance abuse or developing better life and employment skills.

While “housing first” is the goal, he said, it is important that people be indoors until they can get housing,” which is why it is important to make sure that there is adequate emergency shelter.

“We need a safety net,” Wild said. “The Bergen shelter does it beautifully. They get people out of the cold and get them into permanent housing in about 89 days. That would be the goal of a facility in Ocean. And we need to continue in other counties.“

How he became involved: Wild’s connection to the issue starts with his father, Stanley Wild, who told stories of his homelessness as a child during the Great Depression. Wild’s great-grandmother was an immigrant from Romania and single mother who scraped by, often having to flee apartments in the middle of the night when the rent was due.

“It is an example of the kind of stuff that went on and still does, but that does not make it into the statistics,” he said. “It is real nonetheless. You can be homeless in all sorts of ways.”

“That showed me that it could happen to anybody. He was an extremely bright man who went to Cornell before I did and created his own business. It is all a little matter of bad luck or good luck. That was true in Great Depression and it is true in 2014.”

His first encounter with homelessness came during his first year as a lawyer at Paul, Weiss, when he worked on the litigation that ultimately created the right to shelter in New York.

“I remember the contrast between sitting in a nice office in one of the most prestigious law firms in the world and then walking out into the street and seeing the homeless outside the building,” he said. “It connected an abstract principle to real people.”

He began visiting Tent City in Lakewood with a group from his synagogue, which would bring “survival supplies” to the camp a few times a year.

“I decided I wanted to go beyond that,” he said. “We arranged for Legal Services of New Jersey (the nonprofit group that provides legal aid to low-income residents) to meet with homeless at a local church so that they could get government benefits.”

That was when minister Steven Brigham, who oversees the homeless camp, asked him to help. Brigham told Wild that Lakewood Township planned to evict the homeless from the township-owned property on which they were camped. Wild sued and won an injunction, and later negotiated the current consent decree that will result in the closure of the camp later this month. Currently, the remaining residents are protesting its closure.

“I don’t support tent cities,” Wild said. “They are an abomination. But I believe in the right to stay somewhere until they have another option.”

Education: Wild received his bachelor’s degree from Cornell University and his law degree from Columbia University. Before coming to Lowenstein Sandler, he was an attorney with the Paul, Weiss law firm, where he worked with the Coalition for the Homeless. He is a trustee with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and Barnert Temple in Bergen County.

Personal life: Wild and his wife Susan have been married for more than 25 years. He has a son, Daniel, 24, and a daughter, Allison, 17. He plays Texas hold ‘em poker, chess, backgammon and tennis. He lives in Wyckoff and spends summers on Long Beach Island.