Volunteers survey area homeless population

Posted: January 31, 2014

Icicles drape down from the ceiling's holes; frozen puddles sit beside the shabby couch. Amid the tarps and blankets and trinkets - inside the decrepit shack in a wooded area in Pemberton Township - Sarah Anderson has reluctantly found a home.

Since being evicted from her low-income residence in the township in May, Anderson, 54, has been unable to find affordable housing, she says.

Instead, she has turned to living with her 21-year-old son and her boyfriend inside the small shack shrouded by trees off Pemberton-Browns Mills Road.

The money she collects from Social Security disability payments, she said, simply isn't enough to afford rent.

"We're invisible," the former nurse's aide said of the homeless.

On Wednesday, volunteers across New Jersey took on that claim, conducting the "Point in Time" count to measure the homeless population. The annual 24-hour survey began in New Jersey at 10 p.m. Tuesday.

With shelters reporting clientele through databases, and local agencies and volunteers scouring each county, homeless advocates hope to capture a glimpse into life on the streets - from places like Camden's "Tent City" to area motels and makeshift homes like Anderson's. They ask about financial resources, substance abuse, family, and military service.

In November, national data indicated a 16 percent drop in individuals "experiencing long-term or chronic homelessness since 2010," according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Last year, the New Jersey report found the homeless population had dropped 8.5 percent from 2011. Burlington County in 2013 ranked the fifth-highest for homeless populations among the 21 New Jersey counties, accounting for more than 6 percent of the statewide total.

Volunteers with the Browns Mills-based Christian Caring Center set out in the township to survey homeless men and women Wednesday afternoon. They spoke with individuals at the Red Carpet Inn and El Sombrero motel.

Joel Scott, 53, was spending his first day at the motel, where he got a room with welfare assistance. Inside Room 9, he rested his Cheyenne cigarettes and breath mints on a table, and laid his beer cans on the bed.

Scott said he cannot read or write, but is willing to work odd jobs - painting, construction. He said he's unable to care for himself.

"It's a sad story, but everybody's got one," he said.

The survey certainly helps raise awareness, said Madelyn Mears-Sheldon, executive director of the caring center - but only to a point: "People forget about it by Easter."

Mears-Sheldon said the county is working on a center that would provide longer temporary housing, as well as on-site experts who can connect the homeless to services such as addiction treatment and veteran guidance. She called it a much-needed comprehensive effort. "Most people don't even know this type of homelessness exists," she said.

Her center offers breakfast, lunch, and guidance to those in need, six days a week.

Among those clients is Anderson, who shares a bed in the creek-side shack with her son, each in a sleeping bag.

Her boyfriend, John Morgan, sleeps on the brown couch beside the rusty bucket used for fires. Morgan, who acknowledges he had been jailed on drug charges, said he's been living in the shack on and off for 17 years.

During Code Blue emergencies - a seek-shelter advisory during frigid temperatures - the First Baptist Church of Pemberton opens its doors for overnight shelter.

"I'd be dead if it wasn't for Code Blue," said Anderson, who mentioned depression and other ailments. "It's like heaven for us."

But several doing the survey feared the harsh weather may skew numbers for the report.

It "would definitely drive our homeless into areas where it would be harder to find them," said Eric Stalter of Newpoint Behavioral Health Care, which led the Gloucester County survey.

"Maybe there will be a higher shelter count than the nonshelter count," said Kate Kelly of Monarch Housing Associates, a Cranford-based nonprofit group that will compile the state survey.

The 2013 report found 84.1 percent of the homeless during the count were sheltered - most in some form of emergency shelter.

Monarch expects to complete the state report in March. Advocates say it helps determine which services and programs, in addition to levels of affordable housing options, are most pressing. "We need to know what the need is," Kelly said.

In Gloucester County, two teams scoured the county for homeless residents, calling on police and other local agencies for tips. Stalter said the volunteers were able to find temporary shelter for a couple living in a van in Franklin. The husband and wife had been evicted from their Williamstown home, Stalter said.

But certain work histories and criminal records can sometimes be grounds for disqualification for assistance, said Newpoint case manager Beth Berrevoets. "A lot of these people are in a Catch-22 situation," she said.

As part of Pennsylvania's count, hundreds of volunteers were scheduled to begin searching Philadelphia streets at 10 p.m. Wednesday.

In Montgomery County, frigid temperatures have made this year's count easier by driving the already small population of people living on the street into shelters, said Patricia Bradly of the county's Department of Housing and Community Development. Last year, volunteers found just 13 people unsheltered on the day of the count.

"Anyone we think would be in the street is probably in the shelter," Bradly said, adding that the county's main adult shelter has seen an intake increase due to the cold from about 50 people each night to 80.

But in Chester County, coordinators weren't so certain that the 90 volunteers expected to fan out across about a dozen municipalities from 10 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. would be unable to find people braving the bitter cold. Last year, the census tallied 43 people living on the streets.

Michael Hackman, coordinator of Decade to Doorways, Chester County's 10-year plan to end homelessness, said this year's count would offer a chance to reach out to people who likely haven't sought services. He said finding those at-risk individuals is crucial in a rural county where the homeless population is not always visible.

Hackman said: "It's a hidden population but it is absolutely there."


afichera@philly.com

856-779-3917 @AJFichera

Inquirer staff writer Tricia L. Nadolny contributed to this article.

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