Homeless struggle in New Jersey
Jaclyn Cherubini is not being evasive when she tells reporters that she doesn’t know who the “new homeless” are. She hates the term. For one, it’s presumptuous.
“I don’t know what your question is. What is ‘new homeless’?” she said. “Homeless is homeless — upper, middle, lower class. It can happen to anyone at any time.”
Cherubini, through bubble and burst, has been the executive director of Hoboken Shelter for the past five years. She first heard the term last year in a news report about nationwide appearances of “tent cities,” or recession- and foreclosure-related homeless enclaves. But tent cities, Cherubini scoffs, are nothing new to these parts. There’s been one under the viaducts at the northwest edge of Hoboken since the ‘80s.
But that is the danger, she points out, that comes with terms like new homeless — it creates a class of “old homeless,” as if there were such a thing, who are pushed off the radar and out of public dialogue.
“How does a stockbroker become homeless?” Cherubini said. “That’s what people think about.”
But no one thinks about those already living on the fringe. Like swimmers in a riptide, they are getting sucked back into a cycle of substandard living, while traditional lifelines, like housing subsidies, are no longer around. As ranks of those in need swell, the only thing “new” about homelessness, in these times, is how nearly impossible it is to escape.
There are three shelters in Hudson County that have, in total, 170 beds. There are 80 beds at St. Lucy’s Shelter in Jersey City; 50 at the Hoboken Shelter; and 40 at Palisades Emergency Residence Corporation in Union City.
But according to the last Point-in-Time count, an annual census of the homeless sponsored by the Department of Housing and Urban Development each January, there are 1,779 individuals without shelter in Hudson County. And that number is a gross underestimate: The true number is at least double that amount, according to Kristen Green, program director for Housing Assistance in the Hudson County Division and Community Development.
“You have to consider the circumstance of last year’s count — that it took place during a snowstorm,” Green said. “But you also have to factor in the places we went to and the amount of people you can find in one day.”
A scarcity of beds in the region is made even scarcer when residents stay longer. The maximum time residents are allowed to stay varies at each shelter. The average stay at St. Lucy’s and PERC is about two to three months; at the Hoboken Shelter, it‘s six months. But extensions can be granted for good behavior, which is a trend, according to Thomas Harrigan, program director at PERC. He estimates that there has been about a 13-percent increase in the need for shelter beds since last year.
Part of the reason residents are staying longer is because they’re stuck in a Catch 22 of a plunging job market and a skyrocketing cost of living.
“We live in such an unaffordable area,” said Brenda Pulaski, director of St. Lucy’s shelter. “There’s hardly any place to refer our residents.”
George Jacobs had his own apartment by the time he was 17 years old, a house when he was 18. Now, at 66 years old, he has been homeless twice since 2001. As a retired bus driver, separated from his wife 35 years ago, Jacobs relies mostly on the help of friends for part-time jobs and housing. But good graces run dry.
He returned to St. Lucy’s Shelter in Jersey City three months ago because surviving on retirement benefits alone doesn’t cut it. At his age, with his heart condition and in this job market, supplementary income isn’t easy to come by.
“You don’t get really nothing from retirement. You work your 50 years, and they don’t give you nothing,” Jacobs said. “Life is hard, but when you get my age, ain’t too much you can do to make it easy. Nobody wants to hire you.”
The shelter’s no life at all, he said, but he can’t afford to go elsewhere. Even a single-room occupancy, which costs about $125 dollars weekly, is out of reach. He only earns about $700 dollars in benefits each month, out of which he pays health insurance. He dreams of qualifying for a housing subsidy, known as Section 8, offered by the Jersey City Housing Authority. But everyone knows, he laughs, that’s a far-fetched dream: There’s a 10-year waiting list for Section 8 vouchers throughout Hudson County, and the waiting list is closed, except for some specific populations, such as war veterans, according to a source at a local homeless organization who preferred not to be named.
The reason, partly, is the effect the recession has had on the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s new formula in issuing subsidies. A person receiving a Section 8 voucher now pays 30 percent of his or her gross income toward rent. But because so many people have lost their jobs and have less income to contribute to the formula, housing authorities are paying far more in subsidies and many are unable take on new clients, the source said.
Occasionally, Section 8 vouchers are returned to the Jersey City Housing Authority when recipients begin earning too much income, or for non-compliance or rule violation. But such vouchers must be reserved for people who have been displaced by a massive public works project, know as the Hope VI Revitalization Plan. Hope VI calls for the demolition of dysfunctional high-rise-style projects, and redevelopment of townhouse-style public housing. In Jersey City, Curries Woods and A. Harry Moore have been razed, and Montgomery Gardens will likely follow. But the replacement of units is not taking place at a one-to-one ratio.
According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a person living in Hudson County has to earn $19 to $20 dollars, working full-time, to afford a studio or single bedroom apartment, while a person earning minimum wage, $7.15 an hour, would have to work 106 to 112 hours a week. But the homeless — many of whom lack education, skills, clean legal records, or, like Jacobs, are living off of insufficient benefits — find it difficult to make close to that, much less find full-time positions.
“Sometimes (employers) give you ten dollars an hour, but you only work four hours. Then you have to worry about transportation to get back to where you’re coming from,” said Dennis Darby, 48, who has lived at St. Lucy’s for the past eight months. “Then you want to buy cigarettes — the money’s gone right there. The next day you’re broke. You’re right back where you started.”
In the past, residents have transitioned out of emergency housing to single-room occupancies. But tenants don’t have the same legal protections, according to Harrigan.
“If you only worked a day or two that week, and you don’t have rent by 6 o’clock, by 6:30 p.m. they can lock you out,” Harrigan said. “I see a lot of people here who get locked out.”
Residents at PERC traditionally found employment through temporary staffing agencies. But some agencies are no longer accepting applications, and those that do offer considerably less work, Harrigan said. Instead, the homeless often find work off the books, unloading trucks and assisting superintendents. But that can run the risk of getting swindled for a day’s work without recourse, as well as losing general assistance because of welfare fraud, said an anonymous St. Lucy’s resident.
The stigma of living in a shelter still impacts job and housing prospects, Darby said, who became homeless eight months ago.
“If you’re (living at) a shelter, they’re not going to hire you because frankly they think you’re up to no good anyway,” Darby said. “They think you’ll last a couple days, then you’re not going to come in.”
But some of the employment issues that the poor face may be systemic, according to Susanne Byrne, executive director of the York Street Project. She feels the current welfare system, which emphasizes working instead of higher education, is a bit behind the curve.
“People are not being trained for jobs that pay a living wage or offer opportunities for advancement,” Byrne said. “People with college educations are taking many entry-level jobs that used to be occupied by people with high school diplomas.”
“People who were doing sophisticated work, they’re (now) doing the job that I would have done,” said Robert Ortiz, 54, a resident at St. Lucy’s. “I can’t even find job as a dishwasher.”
The Hudson County Alliance to End Homelessness recently announced a 10-year plan to address the region’s mounting need. The plan includes development of affordable housing units, a homeless trust fund that provides matching funds for homelessness projects and a homeless court that tries those living below the poverty line for misdemeanors, such as hopping turnstiles, replacing monetary fines with community service.
Some homelessness prevention funds are increasing, Green said. Hudson County recently received $1.5 million in federal stimulus money to help keep people in their homes, with programs like rental assistance. Jersey City and Union City, which manages their own funds, received $2 million and $500,000, respectively.
Still, many organizations that serve the homeless are ambivalent about what Governor-elect Chris Christie has in store for them, after pledging to cut the state budget without raising taxes.
“On a personal level, not raising taxes is great,” said Byrne. “But on a professional level, my concern is, where are these cuts are going to come from? Are they going to come from programs that serve the poor?”
But the gravest concern of all is the ever-dimming hope of those left teetering on the edge.
“You got a lot of people (at the shelter) much smarter than me and you,” Darby said. “But it doesn’t have anything to do with smartness — it’s about getting a break, and that’s not going to happen. I don’t think it is.”