Crystal Fedeli spent several months last year homeless, relying on friends and members of her church to give her a warm place to sleep with her infant daughter. On Wednesday, she told her story to members of New Jersey’s congressional delegation, hoping to get them to pass laws that will allow everyone to have a safe place to live.
“Housing is a right,” said Fedeli, 29, and now living in permanent housing in Stockton in Hunterdon County. “The opportunity for health, to be a healthy parent, the opportunity for education, the opportunity for child safety begin with housing.”
Fedeli was one of more than 300 formerly homeless people and their advocates who took buses from across the state to Washington, D.C., for a daylong reception with representatives and a program titled “Opportunity Starts at Home: Building a Necessary and Secure Foundation for Healthy Communities.” Monarch Housing Associates, a nonprofit working to expand affordable and supportive housing that conducts the annual count of the state’s homeless, led the planning of the reception and worked with 37 sponsoring partners from across New Jersey.
The advocates were there to urge the state’s congressional delegation to support proposed policy priorities meant to give residents access to affordable homes. Every representative was invited, and many attended to address the group and hear the stories of Fedeli and others.
Journey to homelessness
Fedeli said she became homeless in January 2018. She had been living with a family member who was critical of the choices she was making — Fedeli was not married when she gave birth, was working two part-time jobs, and was pursuing a master’s degree — and then told to leave.
“I was living in random people’s houses,” she recalled, adding the county social services agency also got her housing for a very brief period.
But the safety net failed her at almost every turn. Fedeli, who has a bachelor’s degree in English, said she was making too much money to qualify for some forms of assistance. She had to try to reach her daughter’s father but she didn’t start receiving child support for almost a year after becoming homeless. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, took three months to catch up with the birth of her daughter, so she lived on $194 a month and ate “bananas, rice, and peanut butter” to make the money last. Rental assistance programs were overwhelmed and at first provided no help.
“Our eligibility requirements are not realistic,” Fedeli said. “I was in a situation where I was making just over the limit to qualify for any social services, but I was not making enough to support my daughter’s basic needs.”
Eventually, she sought help from college officials and was given temporary emergency housing. But she suffered from post-partum depression, and was unable to keep up her grades. “I just couldn’t concentrate, there was so much clouding my mind,” said Fedeli, who left a master’s program.
Five months of struggle pays off
After five months, she was finally able to get housing assistance. She now has a good job working in the state public defender’s office and has entered a new master’s program, focusing on child advocacy and policy. She is also planning to go to law school and is starting an advocacy center for single parents.
“I can’t say things are perfect,” she said. “My car still needs unexpected, frequent repairs. Now things are starting to stabilize, but it’s still tight.”
When all the bills are paid, including $850 a month for childcare, there’s little if any money left over, Fedeli said. She puts herself among the ranks of New Jersey’s 1.2 million ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) households — almost 40 percent of all households — who do not earn enough to afford basic needs that include food, clothing, shelter, medical expenses, and childcare.
New Jersey is one of the most expensive states to live in. A superior court judge last year estimated it needs an additional 155,000 affordable-housing units to accommodate low- and moderate-income residents. The National Low Income Housing Center ranks New Jersey as the sixth most-expensive state in the nation, with 36 percent of all households renting and a typical two-bedroom costing $1,465 a month. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows essentially half of all renters in New Jersey are cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing.
Advocates said representatives were very receptive to their message, which is not surprising given 11 of New Jersey’s 12 House members are Democrats, as are its two U.S. senators.
Mark Duffy, chief operating officer of Collaborative Support Programs of New Jersey, said the representatives who came “were very passionate; they had done their homework” and he is hopeful they will support programs to reduce homelessness.
Still, the advocates are under no illusion that it will be easy to get a divided Congress to pass bills meant to improve the lives of those in need and lessen the burden of finding an affordable home. Duffy said even just preventing cuts in safety-net programs would be a win.
Still, they pushed for their legislative priorities, which include:
number of vouchers available.
“Having a place to call home is a basic human right,” says Taiisa Kelly, CEO of Monarch Housing Associates. “Expansion of funding for voucher and housing development programs, as well as funding for programs providing services to support housing programs, is critical. It is critical not only in the fight to end homelessness, but in the work to create healthier individuals and healthier communities.”
New Jersey’s effort was part of the larger national Opportunity Starts at Home campaign focused on bringing the housing needs of low-income Americans to light. The state effort emphasized the relationship between housing and health.
“The single most-important factor related to a person’s health is where they live,” said Diane Riley, executive director of the Supportive Housing Network of New Jersey. “Having a decent, safe, affordable home is not only the first but the most important aspect of a person’s life. For those with different abilities and barriers, a home doesn’t just mean health, it means independence and the ability to be part of a community.”
Duffy said a common theme among the personal stories told was that once an individual found a stable place to live, they felt proud and found many other aspects of life improved. He thinks that message is an important one to keep repeating.
“One of the things that happens when you do something like this is it puts the issue on the map for a while,” Duffy said. “Their stories were very effective.”