Breaking down barriers to helping homeless in suburbia

Published May 4, 2019
By Marion Callahan

Many social and regulatory barriers block Burlington County residents from rising above homelessness. Right now individuals can be denied Emergency Assistance when they are deemed to have “caused their own homelessness.” The state is looking to repeal measures that deny people the help they need. Local nonprofits are working to get them shelter with services.

Being homeless was hard enough.

But being treated like an outcast was almost unbearable, said 47-year old Mount Holly resident Robert Buchman, who remembers how people behaved around him when he lived on the streets for eight months.

He tried to stay presentable, though he was sleeping in a patch of woods near a local cemetery. Saddled with bags of belongings as he walked through town, people knew, he said. Store clerks didn’t want to touch his hand to take change. And when he said “hi,” people often avoided eye contact.

“I didn’t want to beg on the streets, but people would see you standing next to a dumpster looking for food, and change the direction of where they were walking,” he said. “They think that if you’re in that situation, you did something wrong to get there; it’s a big assumption and makes you feel like an outcast.”

Though a breakup and a nervous breakdown led to his homelessness, it was the isolation on the streets that left him contemplating suicide. “In today’s society we take care better care of stray animals than people and it’s something I don’t fully understand,” he said. “People see it (homelessness) but don’t want to be bothered.”

Homelessness, advocates say, is a complex issue to address — and even more so in suburban counties like Burlington County, where the homeless are less visible, scattered in wooded lots behind shopping centers and housing developments, sheltered in cars or huddled under canopies of restaurants and businesses throughout the region. At the same time, agencies tasked with helping them are strapped for money and hampered by regulations.

“There are so many complications,” said Madelyn Sutton, executive director of the Christian Caring Center shelter in Pemberton Township and co-chair of Burlington County’s Continuum of Care board, which guides the county’s homeless response.

“They need to get to a center with case managers who know how to assess a situation, whether it’s a mental health challenge or an addiction issue, so we know where to send them for help to address the primary cause. In the meantime, we have to meet their emergent needs — hunger and shelter for that night. Until then, they are in a survival mentality and can’t address the primary cause of what got them there. How are they going to get sleep, food or find a place to go to the bathroom? Those are big issues.”

No place to call home

The total number of homeless is tough to measure, but area housing and human service officials get a snapshot of the crisis through the annual point-in-time count, conducted once a year on a winter night.

On Jan. 23, 2018, Burlington County logged 840 homeless individuals, with 56 of them unsheltered, living on the streets or other places not meant for human habitation. The 2019 NJ Counts survey results have not yet been released, but those manning the Code Blue shelters this past February said visits from unsheltered homeless soared to record numbers, primarily because of the opioid epidemic, said Sutton.

In Burlington County, much of the work to reduce homelessness is shouldered by nonprofits, which apply for state and federal funds for services such as running shelters and transitional housing, and employing case managers for street outreach. Complicating the problem is the fact that case managers — which advocates say are key to connecting the homeless to basic services — are in short supply. They also are not directly employed by the state or federal government; instead, nonprofits hire the workers and are reimbursed by government funds for their salaries.

“We have a shortage of case managers and it’s a financial burden on all of us,” said Sutton, who said grant money often runs out in September and some case managers are left holding their paychecks. “We catch up in November and December only because of donations from churches and individuals.”

Burlington County does not operate its own emergency shelter, but it administers the funding for the nonprofits and is working to solve the homeless problem with “rapid re-housing,” different models of transitional housing and a new coordinated assessment initiative, which brings multiple agencies together to address cases, county officials and advocates said.

County officials would not allow their human services program manager to speak directly to this news organization for this story, but county spokeswoman Christine Gonnelli provided emailed responses to questions from Jen Hiros, an administrator at the county Human Services Department.

“Although the county works diligently to fight homelessness, the lack of affordable housing is a challenge,” Hiros wrote. “We continue to support the building of affordable housing options in this county to meet the needs of many people that require low to moderate housing.”

Hiros said addiction and mental health issues are challenges that continue to contribute to homelessness in Burlington County. “The particular population of individuals also has an inability to accept and retain services,” she wrote.

Of the homeless identified in the 2018 count, 40 percent of them reported having some type of disability, and 25 percent had no source of income, according to Monarch Housing Associates’ 2018 point-in-time survey of Burlington County.

Both the county and the state are making moves to increase help for the homeless.

In March, the Burlington County Board of Freeholders voted to create a $3 surcharge on all deeds, mortgages and land records filed in the County Clerk’s Office. The money will go into a trust fund to help homeless residents or those at risk of becoming homeless.

“It has the potential of raising $240,000 for permanent housing,” said Sutton, of the fee that will be collected starting in June. “It’s new money coming in and it’s part of the long-term solution, which is permanent housing.”

Last week, New Jersey Department of Human Services Commissioner Carole Johnson called for the removal of barriers to help the homeless, and said the state is “taking action to make it easier for individuals and families who are either homeless or at-risk of becoming homeless to get critical services and assistance in a timely way.”

Staci Berger, president and CEO of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, said two regulatory changes the state is making are long overdue: to repeal a measure which deems people ineligible if they “caused their own homelessness,” and to remove the barrier that requires youth seeking homeless assistance to provide their parents’ tax returns.

Kent Pipes, who provides housing for more than 100 homeless in Burlington through three nonprofits, said the state’s announcement to make emergency help more accessible is a big step.

“It is light at the end of a very dark tunnel of darkness and despair for so many,” said Pipes, who runs The Affordable Homes Group, The Salt and Light Company Inc., and People First.

Local data show that 90 percent of the homeless in Burlington County earn less than $1,000 a month and 20 percent of them have no income at all. And while affordable housing is in short supply, Pipes said the crisis is multifaceted.

“For the homeless, housing is not the primary issue; they’ve lost housing because of something and that something needs to be addressed, whether it’s drug addiction, domestic violence, income related or something else.”

Bureaucratic barriers

Elizabeth Harris, who was homeless but now is living in transitional housing, said finding a job while living on the streets wasn’t realistic.

“Many people are eating out of the trash, and when you got to try to get work, you need a place to stay,” said Harris, adding that employers don’t want to hire people who don’t have established addresses or can’t wash properly. “They ask, ‘Where do you live?’ They think a lot of people are homeless because they choose to be homeless. But they are not understanding.”

Homelessness in the suburbs presents its own unique challenges, Sutton said.

“In bigger cities, people are more aware of where they are, they are more out in the open and people pass by them,” she said. In the suburbs, “they live in cars, in woods, in abandoned houses everywhere. Some people who are working take their entire paycheck and stay in a motel. By the time they get to the streets, they’ve exhausted all other resources, including relatives and friends’ couches.”

Most people walking into the Christian Caring Center are primarily homeless because of inadequate income, a divorce or separation, or an illness. “Most have no idea how to access the system,” Sutton said. If they get Social Security benefits, the $806 monthly check that the average adult gets in assistance isn’t enough for housing, she said.

Buchman, who suffers from anxiety, said reaching out for financial and medical help from the county was difficult. Facing additional bureaucratic barriers, such as proving his homelessness, didn’t help.

“How do you prove you’re homeless? Want to come see where I live in the woods? You get stuck in a never-ending loop, try to go to therapy and take meds, but at the same time, you think, how am I going to eat? I was worried about staying warm and dry for a night.”

Trying to access services made him feel like he was on an assembly line, filling out paperwork and being shuffled from one office to another with little guidance or direction.

“I know some people struggle with comprehending the paperwork; it’s thick and requires patience,” he said. “You don’t hear, ‘Can we help with a job or doctors?’ You have to figure that out on your own. I know you have to have accountability, but the initial shock of being homeless can hamper your ability to focus and get out of it.”

Sutton said the county’s system “isn’t trying to be cold.” “They have a different role; they don’t have enough staff or funding,” she said.

To address some of the shortfalls, the county’s approach to connect people with services is changing, as well.

A new system, called “coordinated assessment,” is underway to better link people coming in for assistance with the services they need. Sutton said the county is devising a system to coordinate nonprofits, case managers and other advocates and improve the intake process. Together, the team meets monthly and can make decisions on “hard-to-handle people” or help decide whether someone is “housing ready” or needs treatment first.

“Before, we waited for someone to walk through our doors,” Sutton said. Now, if she alerts the county to an opening, the coordinated assessment system team could place someone from any pocket of the county who needs shelter.

“It’s more fair this way; it’s moving in the right direction,” Sutton said.

Pipes said the state is also heading in the right direction, and applauded its April 24 announcement.

The state’s human services department is “issuing clarifying guidance to counties,” which administer emergency assistance services. Under the state’s “immediate need” policy, individuals and families who are likely eligible for financial and housing assistance but who have not yet been determined eligible, are able to get services immediately if they lack shelter or are at imminent risk of losing shelter.

This measure would offer 30 days of temporary services for those in immediate need of shelter, food or clothing while their application is under review. The department also wants to provide families experiencing homelessness up to six months of child care subsidy services while they get the documents and paperwork needed to establish eligibility. Documentation is generally needed before services are initiated.

Right now individuals can be denied emergency assistance when they are deemed to have “caused their own homelessness.” In a release, the department stated: “The lack of clarity around this regulatory standard has resulted in varied interpretations and inconsistency in implementation.” Instead, the revised rule will seek to more clearly define eligibility as well as good cause exceptions for individuals otherwise ineligible for emergency assistance.”

The Department also plans to revise an existing rule to eliminate the requirement that some individuals seeking assistance provide their parents’ tax returns to demonstrate that they are not claimed as a dependent. “This can make it difficult for young adults in need of services to obtain critical help,” according to the department statement.

“Ensuring services for those in immediate need, especially repealing the unclear and hurtful ‘causing your own homelessness’ standard and supporting young adults at-risk of homelessness will bring much-needed help to individuals and families when they need it the most,” said Berger.

A central hub for services needed

While regulation changes are a big step forward, people still need a destination in Burlington County where they can access many services at once, advocates said. One group, Citizens Serving the Homeless, is determined to open such a refuge.

Gathered around a table of homeless advocates one recent Tuesday, Pipes and Sutton outlined their vision for a place that they hope could serve as a model to end homelessness and counter specific challenges in suburbia.

“When we put them in various apartments or motels, they are isolated from the support system that we expect them to access; that’s not economical or practical,” said Pipes, of the Westampton-based group.

So, as part of Citizens Serving the Homeless, the faith-based nonprofit is in the planning stages of creating a housing environment where services could be provided on site and many needs could be met in one consolidated place. The group has spent a decade brainstorming ways to fill the gaps in services, traveling across the country to learn from success stories in other states.

With donated land and support from Pemberton Township, the group is moving forward with fundraising efforts to build a community that would house six basic living units, where residents could easily connect with service providers to help them find jobs, access mental health or addiction services, and connect with others who are facing the same challenges. The group and its individual nonprofits rely on state and federal grants to provide the bulk of their services, and credit many churches and community volunteers for making their work possible.

“We provide what government can’t, but we can’t live without government money,” said Pipes.

But the county’s present needs are beyond what government and nonprofits can provide.

One gaping hole is the lack of an emergency shelter in Burlington County, advocates said.

Such a shelter is needed to rescue people off the streets but to also serve as a “entry point,” for people to access help that is available to them, Sutton said. It would also help the county better measure the extent of the crisis. “Many people living on the streets don’t know services even exist. That’s a problem. I have advocated for emergency shelter for 35 years, and will do so until I go to my grave. We need it,” Sutton.

Michael Gould, another advocate, said too many people who need shelter are being turned away. “For many families, it’s getting worse,” said Gould, who helps run Extended Hand Ministry in Mount Holly and is seeing a rise in calls from mothers with small children.

Gould said the shelter gets about 10 calls a day from people seeking shelter. “Unfortunately, we can’t take them all in,” said Gould.

The ministry offers a 28-day shelter program to about eight homeless men and also provides community lunches four days a week to try to uplift those in the shelter and for those living on the streets. “This county needs sheltering,” Gould said. “The big problem is there is no where for them to go, put their head down so they can have peace that will have a meal and a roof over their head.”

It took Buchman nearly two years to find that peace and certainty.

Buchman, who lived on the streets for eight months and was in and out of motels for two years, emphasized the need for agencies to let people who need help know what kind of help is there. Now living in transitional housing provided by People First, Buchman has shelter, food and access to services to help him cope with his anxiety disorder.

Reflecting on this journey, he said: “It was tough. With the condition I have, it’s hard to reach out for help. Now it’s a matter of staying focused and using resources to get better. It’s not an easy road or an easy way to live. Every day, I try to make the right decisions.”

One recent day, from the living room of the home he lives in, he gazed at the busy streets he once walked regularly, carrying everything he owned. He said the experience has made him view life differently.

Holding up a cellphone, he said, “Most think this is a basic necessity.”

“I was worried about staying warm and dry for a night, basic things. It requires a different train of thought to live that way. It’s an experience I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.”