Explainer: A Primer on Homelessness in the State of New Jersey

Hank Kalet | July 8, 2014 | Explainer, Social
Point-in-time count reveals that nearly 14,000 men, women, and children had no place to call home -- excluding tent encampments, abandoned buildings, and the like -- at the start of the year

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While the state’s homeless population grew significantly in 2014, according to an annual count, it appears relatively stable when measured over a five-year period — despite a tight economy, residential housing losses due to superstorm Sandy, and New Jersey’s high cost of living.

Major efforts to reduce the number of homeless in the state notwithstanding, the fact that the numbers remained stable is to be expected, given that the economy has yet to recover fully from the collapse of the housing bubble and the financial meltdown of 2007 and 2008, according to advocates for the homeless. Meanwhile, housing prices remain high and there continues to be a shortage of affordable rental units.

The numbers present a thorny problem for advocates. There have been significant efforts around the state to move the homeless into housing and change the way agencies attempt to address the issue. But some areas, mostly in the state’s southern counties, have not moved quickly enough, advocates say.

The state conducts an annual point-in-time count — a census of the homeless in late January — intended to create a snapshot of the population. The count is used to allocate federal homeless funding every two years.

In the wake of the housing crisis, homelessness spiked and has remained relatively high. There were 8,296 individuals counted in 2005, which doubled to 17,036 in 2007. Tent encampments popped up around the state, most notably in Lakewood and Camden, and there was an influx of homeless from around the region to Atlantic City. Several counties responded with strong plans, advocates say, most notably Bergen, which is considered one of the models for addressing the problem by creating a single-stop social service center and by quickly moving people back into permanent housing. Mercer, Middlesex and Essex counties also have won praise for using a “housing first” approach, which mean putting homeless into permanent housing as quickly as possible and providing support services.

More recently, a multipronged effort in Atlantic City, which included both government and private, nonprofit agencies, has resulted in a more streamlined effort to move the homeless into housing in the county and has been praised by Gov. Chris Christie. And a negotiated settlement in Lakewood has resulted in the closure of its tent encampment, though there have been protests by some of the homeless and their supporters over treatment of the remaining homeless population there

How many homeless individuals and families are there in New Jersey? There were 13,900 homeless individuals counted in the state on January 28, which represented an increase of 15.8 percent from the 12,002 counted in 2013. This year’s figure, while an increase over the past year, represents a decrease from the 14,078 counted in 2011, according to a report from Monarch Housing Associates.

The report also found that there were 9,202 homeless households in the state, 23.7 percent of which had at least one child under the age of 18.

Homeless numbers had been relatively low prior to the Great Recession — there were 8,296 individuals counted in 2005 — but the foreclosure crisis caused a huge uptick in 2007, when there were 17,036 counted. The numbers have fallen since then, but have hovered between 12,000 and about 14,000, according to the latest data. (Changes in methodology make it difficult to compare current numbers to those collected before 2010.)

How is that number derived? An annual count – called the point-in-time count — is conducted each January, with each county managing its own count. Volunteers fan out across the state, identifying areas where the homeless congregate and conduct a census that includes information on race and ethnicity, previous income, cause, mental health status, and other information. This year’s count was compiled into a report by Monarch Housing Associates of Cranford. Previous years’ were conducted by the Corporation for Supportive Housing. There was a change in methodology this year, which means that the numbers do not match previous reports. Data for previous years has been adjusted.

Who is included in the count? According to the report, the count looks at two sets of populations:

Those considered sheltered, which means people “living in a supervised motels paid for by charitable organizations or by federal, state, or local government programs for low-income individuals.”

Those considered “unsheltered, with a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings, including a car, park, abandoned building, bus or train station, airport, or camping ground.”

The count does not include those who may be at risk of homelessness or who are “precariously housed,” such as those who are doubled up with family or friends, living in illegal or overcrowded units or hotels not paid for through government assistance, who face eviction or may be released from jails or medical facilities.

Why doesn’t the count include people who may be “doubled up”? There is a debate in the advocacy community over whether individuals or families who have been displaced and may be living with friends or relatives should be included in the homeless count. Advocates for inclusion say that these are individuals whose housing is not stable and who live at the whim of their hosts; others say that, because these individuals and families are sheltered, the scarce resources currently available to address the issue of homelessness should be targeted to those in more dire circumstances.

What are some of the causes of homelessness? In general, advocates blame homelessness on a lack of affordable housing and jobs that pay living wages. Specific “contributing factors” offered by those included in the point-in-time count include being asked to leave a shared residence (20.4 percent of those interviewed); loss or reduction in income or benefits (12.1 percent); eviction (9.5 percent); drug or alcohol abuse (4.9 percent); and release from prison or jail (4.7 percent).

Where are the homeless? About 6.6 percent of the homeless were unsheltered, living on the street or in camps; 70.2 percent were in emergency shelters; and 22.9 percent were in transitional housing.

Union County had the largest homeless population with 1,691, or 12 percent of the state’s total, followed by Burlington with 1,660 (12 percent), Essex County with 1,655 (12 percent), and Middlesex at 1,405 (10 percent). Hunterdon, Somerset and Warren counties had the smallest homeless populations at 255, 323 and 332 homeless individuals counted on January 28.

Who are the homeless? Most homeless individuals are adults (69.6 percent), with males making up 53.1 percent of all the population.

Blacks were the largest racial and ethnic group at 48.5 percent. Whites were 43.8 percent of the homeless population, with 7.7 percent listing other racial categories or no category. Latinos of all races made up 20.5 percent of those who answered the ethnicity question.

In addition, 27 percent of the homeless suffered from mental illness, 21.2 percent from substance abuse, 16.1 percent from a chronic health issue, and 10.4 percent were victims of domestic violence.

The report found that 28.1 percent of homeless households had no source of income, 4 percent earned money from work, and 55 percent said they received assistance from various government programs.

How many veterans are homeless? According to the point-in-time report, there were 639 homeless veterans in the state on January 28, with 44.3 percent in transitional housing, 43.5 percent in shelters, and 11.7 percent unsheltered.

What agencies at the state level are responsible for homeless assistance and prevention?
Services tend to be spread throughout numerous state agencies and departments, including the departments of Agriculture, Children and Families, Community Affairs, Education, Health, Human Services, Labor and Workforce Development, and Military and Veterans Affairs, and agencies such as Housing and Mortgage Financing and the Housing Resource Center.

What is the state doing to address the issue? Christie issued an executive order in 2012 that created an Interagency Council on Homelessness that is charged with reviewing state services, working with advocates and researching what is being done in other states to determine the best course of action for New Jersey. The 15-member panel, which is meeting quarterly, will draft a 10-year plan.

What is the “housing first” model for addressing homelessness? Housing first essentially means placing the homeless in permanent housing as quickly as possible and then providing support services, as needed. Advocates say this provides the stability needed for individuals to successfully battle their substance abuse or mental health issues, develop better work habits, obtain education, or address their medical needs. This does not mean there is no need for shelters — housing first advocates view shelters as a needed first step and generally endorse a single-intake approach like the one used by the Bergen County Housing, Health and Human Services Center, which brings government and nonprofit agencies under one roof to provide immediate services to the homeless who enter the shelter. The goal, advocates say, should be to minimize shelter stays and move individuals and families into permanent housing as quickly as possible.