Emergency Assistance for Poor Residents Who Had Been Cut Off Since Christie Years

By Colleen O'Dea
Published January 3, 2019

New law gives up to five years of payments for housing, other needs. Gov. Phil Murphy says ‘more permanent solutions to this challenge’ are necessary

New Jersey has sewn up another hole that had opened in its safety net earlier this decade, restoring for at least the next five years emergency housing and other assistance payments to some low-income residents who were threatened with homelessness when aid programs ended several years ago.

Low-income individuals who are disabled or who care for a disabled relative, who are over age 60 or who are chronically unemployable can once again continue to receive emergency assistance payments beyond an initial 12-month period. The additional assistance will be available for the next five years under legislation (S-866) Gov. Phil Murphy signed on December 20 that took effect immediately.

The new law repairs the rip in the safety net that opened when the former Christie administration decided in July 2015 not to renew pilot programs that had given continued aid to those with low incomes after they had exhausted welfare-based emergency housing assistance. Some 3,000 individuals, many of them older, disabled or chronically ill, had been receiving help to prevent them from becoming homeless. The state spent about $15 million, roughly $5,000 per person, annually on these programs.

Advocates for the homeless and people of low income had lobbied for a resumption of the assistance; they argued that most of those affected were unable to work full-time, if at all, and could not afford the state’s high housing costs so the lack of continued assistance put them in danger of becoming homeless. Democrats pushed through legislation in early 2016 to permanently extend the aid, only to have former Gov. Chris Christie conditionally veto it; he would only agree to a maximum one-year extension of benefits and only for the disabled and their caregivers.

Lawmakers reintroduced the bill after Murphy, who has made helping those with lower incomes a focus of his tenure, took office last January and put it on the governor’s desk last June 30. But Murphy conditionally vetoed the bill last August, citing an argument similar to the one Christie had made when he shot it down: The emergency assistance program was not meant to be permanent aid. Murphy sought a five-year cap on the extension of aid, to which legislators agreed last month. The governor also called for the creation of “more permanent solutions to this challenge.”

Governor wants a long-term solution
Murphy directed both the Department of Human Services, which administers the emergency assistance program, and the Department of Community Services, which oversees affordable housing programs, to “create new opportunities for collaboration and develop enhanced strategies in an effort to address the specific permanent housing needs” of this population and “forge a pathway to more stable housing solutions.”

Both Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), who were prime sponsors of the measure, praised its enactment.

“This will extend critical assistance to our most vulnerable residents,” Vitale said. “Unfortunately, the need for assistance with housing and food is not a temporary situation for far too many people. They all deserve the basic stability of a roof over their head.’’

So did advocates like Staci Berger, president and CEO of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey. “Emergency Assistance makes all the difference for people struggling to keep a roof over their head. This will bring a welcome relief to so many who are facing homelessness,” she said.

Those eligible have very low income and are receiving “welfare” benefits of cash, medical, food and other assistance. While a person can collect this aid for up to five years, the emergency assistance payments, which can also include clothing, shelter, transportation and utility expenses, were available for only one year prior to the new law’s enactment.

Fewer people expected to need help than in past
Because of the state’s improved economic conditions, the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services estimates that fewer New Jerseyans need emergency assistance — 1,070 currently, compared with 3,000 in 2015. That means the cost of the aid is lower, as well, estimated at $5.3 million a year.

Tom Hester, a DHS spokesman, said the department did not have its own estimate of the number of people who might be helped by the change.

“Helping those who need emergency assistance is among the department’s top priorities,” he said, adding that DHS was working to ensure “the law is implemented properly.”

A second, complementary bill, is on Murphy’s desk awaiting action. The Assembly passed and sent S-1965 to the governor during its last session last month. This bill would allow anyone receiving “welfare” benefits who had also gotten emergency assistance to become eligible for this aid in a future crisis if at least seven years had passed.

Currently, a person may receive emergency assistance for only one 12-month period, with the potential for one or two six-month extensions, during his lifetime. This bill would allow a person who has gotten emergency assistance in the past to be eligible if he finds himself in dire straits again after seven or more years since his initial receipt of the aid. Anyone with a very low income who is getting “welfare” assistance and finds himself in danger of homelessness would be eligible, regardless of health, age or family status.

Advocates are hoping Murphy will sign this second measure, as well, because it could provide at least some additional, temporary relief to those who are in desperate financial circumstances and are younger than age 60 and who are not ill, disabled or chronically unemployable.