Op-Ed: New Jersey’s Homeless Prevention Efforts Are Working

Elizabeth Connolly | July 6, 2016 | Opinion
New and expanded programs will continue to reduce housing insecurity

Elizabeth Connolly is acting commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Human Services.
In December 2015, the U.S. Housing and Urban Development’s annual report noted that New Jersey’s homeless count declined more than 45 other states. And just days ago, Monarch Housing’s 2016 Point in Time Homeless Count report confirmed those statistics, citing that the homelessness rate has further declined by 12.4 percent compared to 2015.

This is good news because it shows that the efforts this administration has undertaken to combat homelessness are working. Are we resting on these laurels? No. We are expanding programs and services to ensure that these homeless numbers continue to decrease and that the outcome for residents who are housing insecure is obtaining stable, long-term or permanent housing.

Recently, there’s been some criticism that the state has changed its Emergency Assistance program, accounting for a decline in enrollment. This is untrue. Where there is a decline in homelessness, there is a decline in EA. It’s really that simple.

The statute guiding the administration of EA was enacted by the New Jersey Legislature in 1998 and has not changed since. EA is a temporary housing assistance program reserved solely for recipients of state and federal cash-assistance programs: Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), General Assistance (GA), and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). It is time-limited to 12 months, with the possibility of up to two six-month extensions. As with all of the state’s social services programs, it is designed to provide short-term help to individuals and families in need.

After noticing anomalies in the longevity of EA cases, the department began a thorough review, and the results were astounding. We found that some counties were paying for 30 days of emergency assistance without ever taking an application to determine if a client is eligible. We also found one county using EA funds to pay for people in witness protection. Even more egregious, there were counties using EA funds to pay for people who were not even New Jersey residents. As a result, we began working closely with the counties, which administer EA, to monitor and enforce the program’s eligibility criteria and time limits. The benefit for eligible residents remains, intact.

But the focus on EA for homeless prevention is short-sighted. During the department’s Senate and Assembly Budget hearings, I announced that beginning this fall, the department will launch a State Rental Assistance Program (SRAP) for recipients of SSI-EA. This initiative is in partnership with the state Department of Community Affairs (DCA) — the state’s long-term to permanent housing-assistance agency. Individuals with long-lasting disabilities receiving SSI will be eligible for state-subsidized housing for as long as they need it.

In addition, DHS recently included in its Comprehensive Medicaid Waiver renewal application, a proposal to use federal Medicaid reimbursement to fund housing-specific case management for Medicaid clients who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. Studies show that programs that provide permanent housing over temporary or bridge housing create better outcomes for people receiving the benefits.

Further, the DCA recently released 10,000 new housing vouchers for low-income residents, the largest distribution of new subsidies for permanent housing opportunities in more than a generation. To enhance that, Gov. Chris Christie’s FY17 budget includes funding for an additional 500 vouchers.

And the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs runs two programs that combine residential and support services for New Jersey veterans who are homeless: Vet Haven North and Vet Haven South. Since 2008, the state has received more than 1,100 Housing and Urban Development Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) vouchers.

The above-mentioned programs, in combination with the host of local programs offered through nonprofit groups and funded by federal grants, are working effectively to reduce the homeless population. New Jersey is making incredible strides to reduce its homeless population in responsible and effective ways: maximizing federal funds, promoting long-term to permanent housing options, and preserving temporary benefits for individuals who are eligible. This strategy is succeeding and we will continue to push forward.