Hundreds of volunteers fanned out across the state Wednesday seeking out people experiencing homelessness, part of a national effort aimed at both documenting their numbers and addressing their needs.
“It’s about getting the data but it’s really about helping them,” said Bobbin Paskell, the COO of Coming Home, a Middlesex County nonprofit committed to ending homelessness. “That’s why we are doing this.”
The annual Point-in-Time Count, a requirement of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, focuses on people living in emergency shelters, transitional housing and on the street. In New Jersey, the effort is known as NJCounts, and takes place on a single day.
Last year, NJCounts found 8,864 homeless men, women and children, in 6,748 households across the state, a decrease of 5% from the year before.
Paskell said volunteers counted 620 homeless people in Middlesex County in January of 2019, including 150 children.
“That number has gone up over the last few years, but we had our smallest increase last year,” she said.
This year’s effort in Middlesex kicked off Wednesday morning at Elijah’s Promise, a local community kitchen, where volunteers also offered everything from free medical care to a warm meal.
Those involved with the count said they try to take a soft touch.
“We didn’t really push the survey because we didn’t want to come across too pushy,” said Courtland Cobb, a case manager with Coming Home Middlesex County.
Curtis McNair, the head chef at Elijah’s Promise, said his kitchen serves almost 350 meals a day.
“They don’t want to be called victims,” he said of those who eat there. “They like ‘guests.’ ‘Guests’ sounds better. It makes them feel like you respect them a little more.”
McNair said he saw a lot of new faces Wednesday.
Charles Wallace was among the crowd at the community kitchen. He said he was grateful for the count and offered some advice for those who are hesitant about participating.
“I haven’t resorted to digging in the garbage to find a meal,” he said. “I am lucky for a place like here, Elijah’s Promise, where I can get two meals a day. I mean, as individuals, that’s our biggest thing — we have a lot pride. But sometimes you have to swallow it, because if someone ever told me I would be homeless, I would’ve told you, you were crazy.”
The Point In Time Count is separate from the federal Census, which will spend three days later this year doing a homeless count as part of its decennial tally of the national population used to apportion Congressional seats. Starting March 30, census workers will first count people living in shelters, then those at soup kitchens and similar facilities, before trying to count those living on the street and in tent encampments on April 1.