Elizabeth Vigeant has been sober and drug-free for more than two years, and was working on going go back to school to get a degree that would help her get a good job when she learned at the end of July that the state would stop paying her rent.
The depression and anxiety with which she struggles returned.
"It's just horrific," said Vigeant, 50, who was one of about 3,000 people who lost her temporary housing assistance. "I was one of the people who just want to continue to utilize these services. I am so grateful. I was able to move back to Frenchtown, where I have my support system, where I am very involved in AA (Alcoholics Anonymous). Now we have to be uprooted. To where?"
Last July, two pilot programs -- assisting people who have exhausted welfare-based emergency housing assistance and those who are disabled and awaiting Social Security Insurance (SSI) benefits -- ended, according to Elizabeth Connolly, acting commissioner of the state Department of Human Services. She said that, by law, the Housing Assistance Program and the Housing Hardship Extension could not be continued.
The state has a new program to help these people find permanent housing, but it gives those affected just six months to find a home before they are cut off from assistance.
"It seems to me this department is really walking away from its mission," said Serena Rice, executive director of the Anti-Poverty Network on NJ. "This crisis involves a dramatic restriction of the aid we are providing to some of our most vulnerable neighbors – those who are either temporarily or permanently unable to support themselves through work.
Specifically, this restriction applies to the loss of access to housing through the Emergency Assistance program – a loss that is making people homeless, forcing them into unstable and unsustainable situations, and in a few cases contributing to their deaths."
Lawmakers acted quickly. Both houses have passed legislation A2568/, that would replace the three-year pilot programs with a permanent plan for individuals who either have very low incomes, receive general assistance benefits, receive Social Security recipients, are in imminent danger of homelessness, are disabled or care for a disabled dependent, or are over 60 years of age and chronically unemployed. They would be exempt from the time limits imposed on others receiving emergency assistance.
The legislation passed the Senate with bipartisan support, while approval by the Assembly was essentially along party lines, and it was sent Gov. Chris Christie last Monday. It is unclear how the governor will act on the bill, although comments by his DHS commissioner do not bode well for his signing the measure.
Connolly said the state has offered similar housing programs for the last decade, and that some people have been getting temporary housing assistance for nearly 12 years.
"That wasn't the intent of the pilot programs," Connolly said, "nor is that kind of inertia aligned with the core mission of social services -- the purpose and goal of which is to empower clients to seek and attain self-sufficiency."
The new program is designed to give intensive assistance, including face-to-face visits, to former HAP and HHE participants. If county welfare officials can't find affordable housing for them, these clients are being referred to other organizations working to do so for up to six months.
In the meantime, their housing assistance is being continued on a temporary basis.
"No one is homeless as a result of the program's expiration," said Nicole Brossoie, a DHS spokeswoman.
Vigeant, who so far has been able to stay in her apartment, disagrees. She said she knows of people who had been receiving the same kind of housing assistance who left their apartments and have essentially "disappeared." She said that of 90 people in Hunterdon County who had been getting help when the programs ended last July, no more than 70 went to court to continue to get aid.
“Because the programs in place were temporary, the assistance they provided didn’t provide the security and certainty for people already facing insecure and uncertain living conditions,” said Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), a co-sponsor of the legislation on Christie's desk. “Some individuals have already been left homeless and countless others are struggling to secure housing aid. But they all deserve the stability of a roof over their head.”
Prior to July 2015, those receiving benefits through the emergency assistance program were granted additional rental assistance beyond the 12 months through pilot programs implemented by the Department of Human Services.
Last July 6, county welfare officials received a letter from DHS informing them that the two programs had expired on July 2.
Vigeant said she did not get a letter telling her about the expiration until July 27, after her landlord had informed her that she would have to leave because her rent was no longer being paid. She said she had enough money to pay the August rent and then got help from Legal Services of New Jersey.
Rice said the way the programs ended, abruptly and without notice, meant "several thousand people were thrown into sudden housing insecurity."
What DHS terms six months of intensive case management designed to help these people find housing "is not working smoothly," Rice said, and is only a temporary patch.
"Advocates have been working overtime to negotiate individual solutions, but the extension programs are gone, apparently for good," Rice said. "The emergency provider safety net is bracing for a wave of new need when the current six-month temporary program ends later this year.”
“There are no good reasons and no acceptable excuses for not doing what we can to help those who are forced to overcome obstacles in their lives that are thrust upon them,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), who also co-sponsored the bill in the Senate.
The pilot programs were funded with state and federal dollars provided to the counties and administered on the county level by county social services agencies and nonprofits. According to the department, the total cost equaled $15.5 million in the last calendar year. The Sweeney-Vitale bill would use the same funding source to continue to provide the housing assistance to those eligible.
At the conclusion of the pilot programs, there were about 760 Temporary Assistance for Needy Family clients, 1,770 General Assistance clients, and 488 SSI clients.
"Doing nothing is not an option when vulnerable residents are threatened with homelessness,” said Staci Berger, president and chief executive officer of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey. “This legislation takes a step towards compassionate and comprehensive housing policy and puts an end to patchwork solutions.”