Having few shelters and lacking comprehensive aid, many suburbs are unprepared to deal with the mental illness, alcohol or drug addictions, or criminal records that afflict 90 percent of those who are homeless, experts say. Or, the suburbs set strict rules for assistance that many homeless can't meet.
And officials predict numbers could grow, as federal unemployment extensions ran out last week for an estimated 29,000 people.
"We're seeing people we've never seen before because of unemployment," said Ed Smith, superintendent of the Gloucester County Division of Social Services. "Unemployment extensions are to run out. We're holding our breath to see what happens not only for us, but all throughout the state."
William Southrey, president of the Atlantic City mission, where only a third of about 700 people helped each day are from Atlantic County, fears more homeless will be headed his way.
"There's going to be a lot of people suffering," he said.
In May, the concentration of homeless in Atlantic City raised concerns after a vagrant woman stabbed two Canadians to death in broad daylight. Family members say she was wandering the streets of Philadelphia when she voluntarily boarded a bus to the Shore.
Many communities, Southrey said, encourage their wayward to head south, and sometimes use underground practices known as "Greyhound therapy" or "dump and run," in which the homeless are given one-way bus tickets, or are brought down by police or medical transports.
"We've had people brought here from the hospital on a gurney," Southrey said.
John Musso, 50, of Cumberland County, lost his wife to cancer three years ago, and then his job and home. He qualified for emergency shelter and financial support but was told there was no available shelter in Cumberland County.
A social worker "gave me $5 for the bus ticket," Musso said at the Atlantic City Rescue Mission, where he has been since April.
New Jersey had 11,700 homeless people when a federally mandated count was done in January, according to statistics released in June by the nonprofit Corporation for Supportive Housing. That is down from the January 2011 count of 12,800. While that count represents only one day, officials estimate the state averages 29,000 homeless people throughout the year, some who need assistance only temporarily.
Contributing to the problem is the long wait - possibly years - for low-income housing across the state. And, counties do not have enough shelters or approved motel rooms for temporary housing. As a result, while homelessness decreased slightly in the last year, the number of people living on the street increased by 300 this year to 1,320, which some advocates believe is a low estimate.
Officials say the counts can vary based on the weather and their ability to find those on the street and in wooded areas. Gloucester, with about 125 homeless, was one of 11 counties throughout the state where homelessness increased.
Gloucester places 25 to 30 people a week in temporary housing and refers two or three to Atlantic City as the county continues to improve services locally. It is adding on-site counseling for faster assessments for substance abuse and mental illness and has joined a coalition with Camden and Cumberland Counties to broaden social services.
"Our clients come with a lot of problems that they really need help with," Smith said.
Those unwilling to quit drinking or doing drugs, or unwilling to attend employment and educational seminars face sanctions that could lead to loss of financial support and ultimately housing.
"We don't want to put people out on the street, but they have to work with us in becoming sober," Smith said.
In Burlington County, 547 homeless were counted, down from 657 in 2011, which officials attribute to preventative programs to help those struggling financially to stay in their homes.
In Burlington, Gloucester, and Camden Counties, dozens of people with substance-abuse problems live in wooded areas, a situation more typical in urban areas like Camden.
"You will never be able to help them because one of the first rules for housing is you cannot drink," said Ralph Shrom, a Burlington County spokesman.
Advocates across the nation are trying a different approach called "rapid rehousing" to help those who lose their homes find immediate, permanent housing. "Housing first" also began in recent years with the goal of putting 100,000 of the most vulnerable homeless across the nation into permanent homes by 2014. So far, more than 17,200 people have been placed.
"There is a shortage of affordable housing for all people, and it is especially true for the homeless or those on the fringe," said Alison Recca-Ryan, director of New Jersey's office for supportive housing. "We've lost [federal] money that was creating new housing."
Opening new shelters also has been difficult because of resistance from neighbors reluctant to live near those with chronic problems. Camden County, for example, has $175,000 in trust for a homeless shelter, but no municipality has been willing to accept it, said Camden County spokesman Dan Keashen. Efforts to build in North Camden failed in recent years after residents strongly objected.
Communities need permanent solutions, said Colleen Velez, senior program manager for the state's supportive housing. "It's not about reinventing the wheel. It's about reallocating resources to really help those who need it."
Most programs initially put homeless in temporary housing. To qualify for permanent housing, they must remain clean of alcohol and drugs. Many do not make it. Housing first does not require sobriety and puts the homeless directly into permanent homes. Seattle has had success with housing first, and Newark has a pilot program helping 50 chronically homeless people.
Some local authorities raised concern about costs of this new approach, which can include on-site counseling and medical treatment, and of allowing substance abuse to continue. Velez notes that Medicaid pays for the homeless forced to use hospitals and emergency rooms, which costs more than on-site preventative care.
"Change is difficult and sometimes it's hard to take a step out of what you've been doing for a long time," Velez says.
Elizabeth Trombetta, 27, of Blackwood, and Robert Diseveria, 30, of Gloucester City, say they are on the streets in Camden because they could not find housing, but at least they can eat in Camden.
Trombetta, beaten on the streets last year while trying to maintain her drug habit, was admitted to a Camden hospital for injuries that included broken ribs and a punctured lung. She met Diseveria in Camden. Unable to get into a shelter and unable to qualify for low-income housing until his unemployment runs out, he sleeps on the waterfront. Diseveria said he lost his job after needs slowed for plumbers and servicing heating and air-conditioning units.
In the suburbs, they say, there was little help within walking distance.
"It's easier to be homeless here," Trombetta said as she sat on a dirty mattress on the porch of an abandoned building where she sometimes sleeps, just blocks from Camden's soup kitchen.
"You won't starve out here," said Bob Merryfield, 47, a painter who once lived in Pine Hill and now lives in a tent. "That's why a lot of people come to Camden. In the suburbs, they don't feed you."
Contact Barbara Boyer at 856-779-3838 or firstname.lastname@example.org.