ELIZABETH, NJ — The line to receive free haircuts, flu shots and donated coats stretched around the block at the Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless on Jan. 24.
Dale Clausen, whose home in Elizabeth was foreclosed on after he’d lived there for six years, stood at the back of the line to wait for a haircut. He heard about the services being offered that day at the YMCA in Elizabeth, where he sometimes sleeps since losing his home Dec. 1.
“It ain’t easy,” he said, referring to how he’s been finding places to sleep during the winter months. “Sleeping anywhere you can. It’s mostly code blues that get you off the street. It’s hard.”
Clausen was referring to the countywide code blue alerts, which signal potentially life-threatening cold weather and spark outreach to get homeless people into shelters. There have been 55 such alerts so far this winter, Union County Human Services Department Director Debbie-Ann Anderson said.
County volunteers conducted the annual Point-in-Time Count and Survey of the Homeless from 3 to 7 a.m. on Jan. 24. About 50 volunteers referred those in shelters and on the street to the services being offered at the Elizabeth coalition later that afternoon.
The Point-in-Time Count is required by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and serves to guide efforts to reduce and eliminate homelessness. The count is coordinated throughout the state by Monarch Housing Associates, a nonprofit organization that advocates for housing accessibility.
The county’s Human Services Department worked with county police, the sheriff’s department and volunteers for this year’s survey. Division of Outreach and Advocacy Director Maureen Segale-Glenn said homeless people weren’t just counted, but also brought into the Division of Social Services to match them with assistance programs.
And for some, the volunteers and county staff members who counted came just in the knick of time.
“Of the three people we found in Plainfield, two were sent to the emergency room,” Segale-Glenn said.
There were 8,532 homeless men, women and children across the state last year, a decrease of 4.6 percent — or 409 people — from 2016. This year, about 42 people were counted throughout the county’s streets. Shelters will report the number of lodgers at a later date, county officials said.
In 2017, Union County accounted for 5.6 percent of the state’s overall homeless population, or 475 people, last year’s survey found. The county also accounted for 3.9 percent of the chronically homeless, or 43 people who have experienced continuous homeless for at least a year.
Linda Flores-Tober, executive director of the Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless, who regularly works with the homeless and hungry, thinks homelessness is increasing in the city, at least anecdotally.
“I think it’s getting worse,” Flores-Tober said as she stood in front of the coalition’s headquarters. “We see a lot of families who are working, sleeping in their car. We’re seeing a lot of single homeless who have run out of eligibility from welfare. So they don’t get services and the rent is so high now around here that people can’t afford to live, so they’re losing their places.”
Each year, the highest rates of homelessness are generally found in the most populated municipalities in Union County, county officials said. The most are counted in Elizabeth, followed by Plainfield, then Linden.
The causes of homelessness are many and range from mental illness, to low pay, joblessness and substance abuse. It’s something that county officials, such as Freeholder Chairman Sergio Granados, have recognized and are trying to address.
“Substance abuse was a major issue we saw out on the street,” said Granados, who joined freeholders Linda Carter and Angel Estrada in the Jan. 24 count. “We can’t just focus on one level.”
Granados pointed to grants for veteran housing and said he has worked to provide professional clothing to those in need for job fairs. The county’s Continuum of Care/Homeless Unit also provides information and referrals to services that promote self-sufficiency, too.
The Union County Clerk’s Homelessness Trust Fund was also created in 2010. It generates funds through a $3 surcharge on recording transactions processed through the clerk’s office and helps homeless people find permanent housing.