ROSELLE, N.J. — On a cold day a few years ago, Cynthia Johnson saw something disheartening.
“I went throughout neighboring towns and I saw that there was a need,” she said. “I saw people walking around with blankets around them.”
Johnson, a first-term councilwoman for Ward 3, said she has seen the trend of homelessness growing in her own municipality of nearly 22,000 since 2017.
“I have seen an increase,” Johnson said in a phone interview on Oct. 29. “People losing their houses, people going out in the streets; things have definitely increased.”
For this reason, her nonprofit Cynthia Johnson Civic Association organized “Hoodies for the Homeless” last year. She repeated the program on Saturday, Nov. 2, at Roselle Borough Hall, giving local homeless people warm clothing, including hooded sweatshirts, and a hot meal.
Last year, working with Abraham Clark High School’s Sigma Beta Club and National Honor Society to collect and distribute clothes, Hoodies for the Homeless served more than 250 people to offer a little help for the coming winter. In addition to asking residents to collect all gently used hoodies, hats and gloves, this year’s event focused on providing both short- and long-term solutions.
Along with some help from state Assemblyman Jamel Holley and former Mayor Gary Smith, Johnson’s nonprofit group partnered with the Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless, New Jersey Blue Cross-Blue Shield and Bridgeway Rehabilitation Services to provide a multitude of social services, including outreach. Johnson wants people to know that there are resources out there and agencies throughout the state that bring awareness to mental health and homelessness.
“It’s not always about finding them shelter,” Johnson said. “It’s about giving them warmth.”
She added that not everyone has the luxury of having warm clothes in the winter.
“This event isn’t just limited to the homeless,” she said. “It’s for members of the community who are having a difficult time making ends meet.”
School board member Keyanna Jones, who also works as a clerk in Roselle Borough Hall, sees Johnson’s event as something more than the usual clothing drive.
“She saw a need for helping homeless people,” Jones said in an Oct. 30 phone interview. “Everybody does a coat drive, but this is something different. This event was a success, she wanted to continue with the program. She encountered a growing number of homeless people within Roselle. She wanted to have the resources on hand to help homeless people. She definitely wanted to raise awareness and provide something to be used.”
Jones said Johnson had specifically asked for the Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless and Bridgeway help homeless citizens find homes.
“We have quite a few residents who come to the mayor to find permanent assistance,” Jones said. “There have been times when residents were on the verge of being evicted. She does a lot on the personal level to prevent homelessness as much as she can.”
Holley, who represents the 20th Legislative District, which includes Roselle, said he’s trying to help from the state government’s end.
“Locally, we are just trying to meet the daily needs of individuals, whether it’s through clothing, whether it’s through funding. I’ve done some legislative bills and with the speaker on that,” Holley said in an Oct. 20 interview, referring to state Assembly speaker Craig Coughlin. “We want to meet the immediate needs for food and housing. I look forward to this event every year, and as long as there is a need, we will continue this type of event every year.”