Camden initiative could be a model for ending homelessness

Near Camden’s Adventure Aquarium and taxpayer-subsidized development, Duncan Gaskins walks to where he used to live at Wiggins Park on Camden’s Waterfront. Now, he’s amused at his environmental technician job at the park where he used to live.

Malcolm Flowers, who also beautifies the county’s parks, use to sleep under a bridge. And Kevin Burk says he chose to be homeless and sleep on a park bench because he used his daytime painting business pay to support his kids.

“Ironically, last summer I’m sleeping out in this park and this summer I’m in the park telling people they can’t sleep in here,” Burk said.

All three men said yes to outreach workers of Volunteers of America and the Work Now initiative where people work for five hours and earn $75.

When they went to collect their pay, the Volunteers of America, Camden County’s Health and Community Development departments and their partners offered the men information and access to medical and mental health care, addiction treatment, housing, government-issued IDs and more.

“It’s not just a one program, one deal. It’s helping, looking at a person as an individual and finding what it is that they need to get back on their feet,” said Camden County Freeholder Carmen Rodriguez.

More than one-fourth of the 400 men and women accepted the services, with the Volunteers of America linking some of them to private sector jobs like EMR. Camden County College launched its Bridge to Work program, vetting five people to tidy up parks and county buildings. Organizers say the initiative also reduces unnecessary trips to the emergency room and to jail for petty crimes and saves taxpayers dollars.

“It’s amazing because it demonstrates the work that we pride ourselves in doing every day, that it actually works,” said Tamika Levels-Hood, regional director of Community Housing and Supportive Services at Volunteers of America.

Program at first had its skeptics, doubters and critics who wondered why someone would give money to homeless people who panhandle.

“It’s all about seeing an opportunity and taking advantage of it. Anybody can find themselves homeless for various different reasons. But if you stay there, that’s on you. There’s definitely help out there if you want to get it,” he said.

Flowers, Gaskins and Burk all have their own places now. The Volunteers of America and Camden County say the partnership needs more buy-in from employers to expand.