Survey finds rise in homeless population

Posted: June 11, 2014

Not much has changed since Jan. 28 for Sarah Anderson.

It was a cold winter, she said, and the bedside fire in a dilapidated shack in the woods in Pemberton Township where she had lived for months offered little respite. While she recently began staying in a friend's pop-up camper, the 55-year-old still holds out hope for affordable housing.

"What I really want is to have my own place," Anderson said Monday, "try to be normal like I used to be."

Anderson, a former's nurse's aide who was evicted from her residence last May and who is now dealing with colon cancer, among other ailments, cannot pay rent with the nearly $900 she receives per month from Social Security disability, she said. Her predicament, in ways individual and circumstantial, offers a glimpse into the unremitting conditions faced by thousands in New Jersey.

The annual "Point-in-Time" count conducted at the end of January estimates the state's homeless population at 13,900 - a 15 percent increase from 2013 - according to findings released Monday. Over five years, that increase is 2 percent.

Still, the "NJ Counts 2014" report says, 1,500 individuals were recorded as "chronically homeless," a 23 percent increase from the previous year. That designation is for individuals with a "long-term disabling condition" who have been homeless for a year or more, or four times over the course of three years.

The count was conducted over 24 hours, beginning on a frigid Jan. 28 night. That evening, Anderson had found refuge during a Code Blue emergency in a local church - a welcome change from the shack off Pemberton-Browns Mills Road where frozen puddles sat next to the bed.

The report was compiled by the nonprofit group Monarch Housing Associates and complies with a federal requirement for funding. Volunteers from the state's 21 counties scoured areas frequented by the homeless; shelters largely reported figures through a state database.

Homeless households overwhelmingly cited being "asked to leave shared residence" as the cause of homelessness, followed by a loss or reduction of income or benefits.

The report demonstrated a persistent problem in Burlington County, whose homeless population accounted for 12 percent of the state total - among the three highest counties.

Burlington's County 1,660 total included an increase of about 990 people, in part because the county this year began including beneficiaries of a temporary rental assistance program (provided to more than 640 people). Counties are left discretion to include such recipients, depending on how and for whom the programs are used.

Eric Arpert, a county spokesman, said officials believed their "aggressive" approach in conducting this year's survey may have provided a "more accurate and more complete count." The county two years ago established a 10-year plan to curb homelessness and spends about $14 million helping the population annually, some from grants and other funding sources.

The county has also been the setting for a recent debate over how and where to best help the homeless. As a nonprofit organization sought to establish a shelter at a former Army base in Lumberton, residents organized against the effort, criticizing aspects such as its proximity to their homes.

The group planning the facility, Citizens Serving the Homeless, said last week that it could no longer seek to operate a shelter at the site because the property owner withdrew from the contract, declining to extend the offer as the group finalized its mortgage financing.

"We're pretty brokenhearted," said Madelyn Mears-Sheldon, president of CSH. Sheldon estimated the facility would have served up to 60 individuals at a time, or 200 per year. "It would have made a serious dent."

The group is eyeing other properties.

"I know that there has to be a spot," said Mears-Sheldon, also director of the Christian Caring Center in Pemberton. "People's lives are in danger. Look at Sarah."

Monarch, the group in charge of the survey, praised a "housing first" approach that prioritizes placing those in need in housing, followed by "wraparound" social services.

Richard Brown, Monarch's executive director, said such an approach in Mercer County had helped bring the county's homeless population down (and the people into homes). From 2010 to 2014, the population total decreased nearly 30 percent.

Brown said county representatives and advocates would meet this week to discuss the findings and advance the conversation about what works.

The hope, Brown said, is that, "at some point, we don't have to be doing this count."


afichera@philly.com

856-779-3917

@AJFichera

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