New Law Makes It Easier for Homeless to Find Help They Need — Without Delay

Published March 3, 2020
By Colleen O'Dea

Measure requires DCA to make information about programs available in one place on its website; uses libraries, welfare agencies, veterans services to get word out

New Jersey has taken several steps within the past year to try to better help those who are homeless or about to become so, but some lawmakers are pushing to do even more.

The Assembly passed without opposition last week A-1229, which would require the state Department of Community Affairs to aggregate on its website information about homeless assistance and prevention programs to make it easier to find everything in one place.

DCA is the umbrella department for the state Office of Homelessness Prevention, which Gov. Phil Murphy had called for in his budget address last year. Legislators pushed the measure through and Murphy signed it into law last spring. The purpose of the office is to coordinate among state and local agencies and private organizations that provide services to people who are homeless or at risk for homelessness, as well as to create and implement a statewide strategy to address the problem.

New Jersey’s homeless census
The official count of the homeless coordinated by Monarch Housing Associates found more than 8,800 living in shelters or on the streets in New Jersey in 2019. But this is only the count on a single day and likely underestimates the full extent of homelessness. Monarch estimates the actual number of people who are homeless to be as many as three times higher than the official count.

There are state emergency assistance programs that pay for temporary housing, as well as shelters and nonprofit groups that help in a number of ways, but the maze of requirements can be daunting.

“It’s a very Byzantine and complicated and expensive and frustrating system and you know it treats people who are down on their luck as if they’ve done something wrong,” said Staci Berger, president and CEO of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey. “It is very frustrating.”

Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic) sponsored the bill to try to make the maze a little easier to navigate by collecting information on all the assistance programs in one location.

“Many people in a vulnerable state don’t know where to begin to look for help,” he said. “This bill can help bridge this information gap by requiring that information on homeless prevention programs and services not only be made available online, but in physical locations to increase visibility and connect people with services they need, but may not know exist.”

The bill would require the DCA to put information on its website about all homeless prevention programs and services available to individuals who are homeless or at imminent risk of homelessness but are not eligible for social or public assistance services. This would include such information, arranged by county, as:

grants and intervention programs that provide services to the homeless, including veterans, and persons at imminent risk of homelessness;
services provided by the state departments of Military and Veterans Affairs, Children and Families, Human Services and Health;
other municipal, county, state or federal housing and homeless prevention programs that provide supportive services.

“There are many wonderful organizations out there ready and willing to help people who are struggling with homelessness, but they are only effective if people know about them,” said Assemblywoman Annettee Quijano (D-Union), another sponsor of the bill. “Having this information readily available online can make getting help easier.”

Reaching out via libraries, veterans services
The bill would also require a number of other offices and organizations to post conspicuously and provide information about homeless programs at no cost. These include local and county welfare agencies, veterans’ services offices, health care facilities, state psychiatric hospitals and libraries, among others.

“Sadly, a common impediment to getting help is not knowing where to look,” said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), another bill sponsor. “Making this information more widely available can help ensure that people facing homelessness can take advantage of the services and programs that are already set up to help them.”

Berger said she is “cautiously optimistic” that the new state Office of Homelessness Prevention will help tackle the issue on a number of fronts, including making the process of getting assistance rational and easier.

“That has started to take shape and it’s really very important,” she said.

The office got a $3 million appropriation to get started. It has taken over responsibility for the state’s Homeless Management Information System, which had been housed in the state Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency and collects data on all housing services provided to individuals and families. Advising the office will be a Homelessness Prevention Task Force, which was charged by law with developing recommendations and looking into ways to promote and support the most effective means of coordinating and funding programs to meet the needs of the homeless and those at risk of losing their home.

New Jersey undertook a number of efforts intented to provide faster assistance to those in need. These included allowing recipients of cash public assistance to get emergency assistance to avert homelessness every seven years.

A new effort took effect Jan. 1, when the state added assistance with homelessness to the 211 number, which also provides help with drug addiction, utility aid and similar services for the needy. Previously, those seeking homelessness services would have to visit their county office or use a local hotline number that might have limited hours. The 211 number is available 24 hours a day and seven days a week.

“A unified, statewide 24/7 hotline gives residents a single easy-to-remember phone number to call for free, confidential and live assistance from 2-1-1’s trained specialists, who then work quickly to address immediate shelter needs,” said Carole Johnson, the state commissioner of human services. “With the information reported to them from 2-1-1, county boards of social services continue their essential role of connecting individuals experiencing homelessness to our critical social services programs.”