Fewer people were homeless in New Jersey in January than at the same time the previous year, but some counties saw sizeable increases in the number of people living in shelters or on the street, data show.
The annual point-in-time count of the state’s homeless, conducted on January 22, found at least 8,864 individuals in 6,748 households, to be without permanent housing, according to the NJCounts 2019 report from Monarch Housing Associates. That was a decrease of about 5 percent over the 2018 count, though it was still roughly 4 percent higher than in 2017, which had the smallest count over the last five years. In 2015, more than 10,000 people were counted as homeless.
Homeless advocates said they were happy to see a drop in the homeless count but noted that in some counties the numbers rose for people living in shelters or on the street.
“While the slight decrease in homelessness in New Jersey is a positive result, unfortunately it is not indicative of a statewide trend as decreases were not demonstrated across the board in all communities,” said Taiisa Kelly, CEO of Monarch Housing Associates.
Other counties with increases
The count showed populations of the homeless increased in nine counties. The largest was in Somerset County, where the number rose by almost half from 206 in 2018 to 301 in 2019, which is approaching the five-year high of 342 in 2015. The other counties with increases were Camden, Cumberland, Essex, Hudson, Hunterdon, Middlesex, Monmouth and Warren.
While there were homeless people in every county, the largest populations were found, not surprisingly, in the state’s biggest or most distressed cities. Newark counted 1,927 people this year, with 15 percent of those unsheltered. Camden had 482 homeless individuals, 30 percent of whom were not staying in a shelter.
The annual survey likely undercounts the total homeless population for a host of reasons. Counts of those in shelters are considered reliable — although on a given night, some individuals who might normally stay in a given shelter may not do so and are not counted. Coordinators in each county oversee local counts and these can be incomplete because it can be hard to find those living on the street or there may not have been enough volunteers to canvass a geographic area.
“We know that the Point in Time numbers provide a snapshot of homelessness in a particular area, but often the reality is that the number of individuals experiencing homelessness is two-to-three times larger than the number counted,” Kelly said. “The count provides a consistent benchmark from which we can evaluate the effectiveness of strategies being implemented, the quality of data collection within communities and the impact of larger societal factors.”
Homelessness is a complex problem that occurs for multiple reasons and is not necessarily solved simply by providing someone with a place to stay. Drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness and domestic violence are all causes, in addition to poverty and the high cost of housing. The report provides insights into how these related problems play into homelessness.
Slightly more than half of those without permanent housing in New Jersey were disabled, according to the January 22 count. Of those, six in 10 had a mental health issue and close to half had a substance abuse disorder. The number of homeless veterans counted has been relatively stable over the last four years and totaled 551 in 2019, although there are likely more who were not counted.
More than 800 of the homeless were fleeing domestic violence, with a majority — including adults and children — in an emergency shelter.
Racism and poverty
The data points to systemic racism as another factor in homelessness. Blacks comprise about 13 percent of the state’s population and almost a quarter of New Jerseyans living in poverty but they are roughly half of the homeless. By contrast, Hispanics make up about 20 percent of the population and an equal proportion of the homeless in the state, but more than a third of those in poverty. Non-Hispanic whites represent roughly a third of the poor, but are just a quarter of the homeless.
“There is a strong correlation between poverty and homelessness, however, the racial disparities evident in the population indicate that poverty alone does not determine who will experience homelessness,” the report states. “Given the disparities present in the data, it is evident that systemic racism plays a significant role in factors contributing to homelessness … Acknowledging and understanding the impact of systemic racism on those experiencing homelessness is key to developing an effective system responsive to the community and strengthened in cultural understanding and awareness.”
For an overwhelming majority, poverty is a major reason for their homelessness. More than four in 10 in the 2019 count reported no source of income and only 13 percent had earned income. Government support, in the form of welfare or Supplemental Security Income was not enough to prevent homelessness for more than 1,000 of those counted. The average monthly income for those in transitional housing, which provides a place to live and supports to help homeless people become independent within two years, was about $963 per month. The unsheltered had an average monthly income of just $335.
New Jersey is among the most expensive states to live, according to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition. A Superior Court judge last year estimated that the state needs about 155,000 new affordable homes to meet the need.
Shelter, street, car, train station
The report shows mixed results for typical services designed to help the homeless. For instance, there were close to 1,500 people chronically homeless — meaning they have a disabling condition and have been homeless for a year or more — which was a nearly 14 percent increase over 2018. On the other hand, the number of people who were unsheltered, 1,482, had dropped by 9 percent from 2018. Almost 17 percent of the homeless were not living in a shelter, but were on the street, in a car, an abandoned building or in a train station or other location.
Kelly said it’s hard to pinpoint specific reasons for the decline in the homeless population but said improved economic conditions do not seem to be responsible.
“In looking at the data over the past five years there has not been any significant change in connection to employment income or the level of income people bring in on a monthly basis from year to year,” she said. “While the economy may be improving, unfortunately those improvements are not trickling down to those experiencing homelessness.”
But, she said, some communities are trying to help those in need of shelter, for instance, by implementing systems designed to streamline access to housing and services. And many communities are working to increase the availability of housing and services for the homeless.
“As those systems are refined, communities have been able to integrate a larger number of providers and housing resources to those systems enabling them to connect more people experiencing homelessness to permanent housing,” she said.
The Murphy administration has taken a number of steps and Gov. Phil Murphy has signed new laws designed to repair holes in the safety net that had developed over the prior decade and make helping the homeless a priority. He also enacted a higher minimum wage, which increased to $10 per hour on July 1 and will rise to $15 by 2024. But Kelly said it’s still too soon to tell how well these efforts are working.
Last week, Monarch coordinated a trip to Washington, DC for the homeless and advocates to educate members of Congress and advocate for increased funding and programs to ensure that everyone has a place to live.
The annual point-in-time count is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to secure federal funding for programs serving people experiencing homelessness. Commissioned by the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, it is coordinated by Monarch with the help of social service providers, local governments, community advocates and volunteers.