By Helen Gauber
Entitled NJ Counts 2017 Point in Time, the survey found that last year, there were approximately 8.941 homeless men, women and children in New Jersey.
Compared to other counties, Gloucester County’s homeless population is relatively small, representing 1.3 per cent of the statewide homeless population. One reason may be the unemployment rate, which stands at 4.3 per cent, compared to the average rate of 4.7 per cent across the state.
Results show that over 50 per cent of the homeless person surveyed are disabled, almost four per cent are children and four belong to veteran households.
The survey asked vital questions such as: ‘Where did you spend last night?’ ‘What town did you spend the night in?’ ‘During the past year, how many months have you been homeless on the streets, in emergency shelter, or in a safe haven?’ ‘What is your total monthly household income?’ etc.
The survey sought to find out as much about a homeless person’s past, as their present. For instance, questions were posed about where homeless persons lived before losing their home, and whether or not they would be interested in receiving services such as mental health care, HIV/AIDS services, educational training, etc. The cause of homelessness was also investigated – these include the loss of a job, eviction, physical or mental illness, drug or alcohol abuse, foreclosure of property, release from prison and injury.
In order to direct the volunteers, the NJ Counts team turned to the police, who provided vital information regarding where homeless individuals could be found. In big cities like Philadelphia or Camden, these individuals can be easier to spot, but in Gloucester, volunteers had to visit hidden nooks and crannies, including bridges and abandoned homes.
Even though the numbers of homeless persons in Gloucester is smaller than in other counties, it is vital that we take the necessary steps to ensure that nobody has to sleep in the streets. There are many steps which can be taken to improve the lives of the many adults and children living in such precarious conditions.
On an individual level, concerned citizens can contribute clothing, materials, household goods, books, computers, ‘homeless survival kits’, phone calls (so the homeless can contact their loved ones who may be living far away), and jobs in companies, schools or churches.
Advocacy is also vital if change is to be achieved. There are many national groups and initiatives one can take part in, including the National Homeless Civil Rights Organizing Project and the National Student Campaign Against Hunger. Interested citizens should log in regularly to the National Coalition for the Homeless homepage, which provides updated information on new legislative proposals being considered in Congress, with respect to homelessness and poverty.
Locals should also pressure their politicians to provide the homeless of Gloucester with more opportunities to change their situation. Housing assistance is key; more public housing and federal housing vouchers, which prove homes to low-income families, as well as a subsidy that varies according to the family’s income over time, provide a fresh start to those who are most in need.
The homeless should also be enlightened ways to reduce their monthly costs, through incentives such as affordable electricity (in the case of free or low cost housing, impoverished persons and families should be invited to take part in incentives such as switching energy suppliers to lower monthly costs). Research has shown that to keep the homeless away from the streets, it is vital that the impoverished are able to meet monthly demands and pay water and energy bills; once these amenities are cut, the homeless are more likely to take to the streets again.
Permanent supportive housing is another useful measure; the latter combines affordable housing with services for those facing mental illness, HIV/AIDS, etc.
A third solution, developed in New York City, is the ‘housing first’ initiative, which involves inviting those who have been homeless for a long time, to move to subsidized housing. These individuals are given the professional support they need to tackle issues such as physical and mental illness and substance abuse disorders.
Greater investment needs to be carried out both on the federal and state levels to increase the percentage of affordable rental housing. Tighter rent regulation should also be established to prevent low-income individuals and families from losing their homes. Finally, citizens should advocate to stop cutbacks on the already insufficient housing assistance available; as long as the housing affordability gap continues to grow, the issue of homelessness is only bound to worsen.