ELIZABETH, NJ — Record crowds lined up at St. Joseph’s Social Service Center in Elizabeth on Wednesday, Jan. 27, as the city’s Coalition to House the Homeless provided the area’s unsheltered population with health screenings, clothes, hot soup and more in the organization’s most well-attended annual service fair ever.
More than 130 people were helped by coalition and social service volunteers, with help from various charitable organizations — the YMCA and Salvation Army among them — as well as representatives with the Division of Social Services.
It was the largest gathering in the nine-year history of the fair, according to the coalition’s executive director, Linda Flores-Tober, which she believes speaks to two factors: The coalition’s improving ability to reach people in the community who are struggling, and the tremendous need of Elizabeth’s 1,200 homeless people.
“Little by little, it’s grown. We’re probably close to outgrowing our space,” said Flores-Tober. And with the fair occurring just days after Winter Storm Jonas, which dumped almost 28 inches of snow on Elizabeth, there was no shortage of generosity, in the form of donations, from the community.
“When we have a really big storm,” she said, “it also really decimates our supplies: Socks, hats, gloves, mittens, coats, those things are all really important. Those kind of things are very helpful. We’re going to get some cold days. Winter is not over, by far.”
Community involvement was why the coalition was able to impact so many people at the fair, adds Flores-Tober, from residents donating sandwiches and winter apparel to those who gave their time, energy and services in helping set up at St. Joseph’s. It’s something which “helps people,” says Flores-Tober, “so we’re very grateful.”
That kind of support is welcome for a working class struggling in Elizabeth, where even those with jobs are oftentimes forced to skip meals, live in poverty — as 18.4 percent of the city’s population does, according to the last U.S. Census — and endure prolonged stretches of homelessness, which sometimes takes the form of living doubled-up with several other families.
Full-sized families living with each other isn’t counted as homelessness, by the standards of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. But it’s a worrying trend in Elizabeth, says Flores-Tober, where it’s also a concern of health, safety and the community’s quality of life.
“We have a growing number of people who are living doubled-up, and HUD does not count that group of people as homeless. So if you’re living doubled-up, you’re living in a unit for one family and there’s two or three families. And what’s happening is we’re seeing more and more of those people,” said Flores-Tober. “That’s why we have a children’s program — most of our children live in families that are doubled-up. How can they do their homework? So they come here and do their homework.”
Although the government tracked the number of families living doubled-up in the 2000 U.S. Census, it didn’t do so in the 2010 edition, which makes it difficult to tell exactly how many people are living this way. With the coalition’s estimate, Flores-Tober says there are about 1,200 homeless people in Elizabeth this year, a number that can only be brought down with further funding for affordable housing.
“The city of Elizabeth does the best it can with the funds it gets, but it’s really HUD, and people should be advocating that HUD is fully funded,” said Flores-Tober. “They’re debating, now, the federal budget and the state budget, and people should be advocating for as much affordable housing as possible — real affordable housing, I’m not talking condominiums — for people with low incomes and the working poor. There’s a desperate need for that, we just don’t have enough.”
A critical step is to create awareness of the problem, which HUD takes into consideration when focusing their efforts. To that end, last week’s annual service fair also served as part of HUD’s nationwide “Point-in-Time Count,” which provides a record of all the people experiencing homelessness on a single night.
And in Elizabeth, that number was at least 130 people, taking into account the record numbers at the coalition’s fair.
“Every year we see more and more homeless families and individuals who are losing their homes attend this event. The individuals and families are not looking for handouts. They are simply looking for stable and affordable housing. These counts are critical because they inform the Department of Housing and Urban Development of the community’s needs,” said Flores-Tober. “This count also serves to ensure that social service agencies get the support they need in order to address the needs of the growing homeless and chronic homeless population in Union County. “
For more information about the Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless or to sign up as a volunteer, visit www.theelizabethcoalition.org or call 908-355-2060, ext. 201.