ELIZABETH, NJ — More than 115 homeless and at-risk people utilized the free services at the Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless — services like haircuts and eye exams — at the organization’s service fair on Jan. 23.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” one man said to intern Kim Siehl as he was leaving the nonprofit’s headquarters on Division Street with a bag overflowing with blankets and a winter coat.
“This is my favorite part of the day because we’re all united on a mission and what’s going on today helps a lot of people,” Siehl, who is working towards her master’s degree in social work, told LocalSource after the encounter.
The service fair coincided with Union County’s date for the mandated statewide “Point-in-Time Count” of the homeless population coordinated by Monarch Housing Associates for the sixth year in a row. The count is required by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and seeks information to reduce and eliminate homelessness.
About 50 volunteers, along with several sheriff’s officers, surveyed the streets between 3 and 7 a.m. on Jan. 23.
Linda Flores-Tober, executive director of the Elizabeth Coalition, told LocalSource at the service fair that volunteers found four people in Elizabeth, three of them veterans.
“They take all people found to county offices and find them shelter,” she said. “It’s hard out there. It’s just really hard.”
Since November, the county’s Office of Emergency Management has activated a code blue emergency shelter initiative 33 times, according to Union County spokesman Sebastian Delia. Code blue involves a series of protocols and occurs in certain weather conditions.
Flores-Tober said her organization created the initiative in 2002 after a woman died of exposure on Christmas in Elizabeth. In 2007, the county stepped in and took over the initiative, the first countywide service of its kind in New Jersey, according to Flores-Tober.
Across the state last year, officials counted 9,303 homeless men, women and children, an increase of 9 percent — or 771 people — as compared to 2017. In Union County, 459 homeless people were identified in 2018, and the results of the 2019 count will be available after shelters report their number of lodgers, according to Delia.
Flores-Tober said the count may be higher in 2019 due to the federal government shutdown.
“With the shutdown, Section 8 is not paying rent on Feb. 1, so I have no idea what some people are going to do,” she said, referring to the federal subsidized housing program. “Many people have come here asking for help with that.”
A code blue is called when the temperature drops below 25 degrees or falls below 32 degrees and is accompanied by precipitation. The code blue waives the requirements for staying in a shelter, and once shelters are filled to capacity, alternate arrangements are made by the Union County Division of Social Services.
“Shelters in New Jersey have high eligibility criteria so this allows people to receive shelter with no questions asked,” Flores-Tober said.
She credited Siehl for organizing the service fair, attended by many people in need.
“It’s essentially a job fair, but for resources,” Siehl said of the event.
Organizations that were at the fair included Salvation Army, Community Access Unlimited, Central Jersey Legal Services and the Union County Board of Elections.
“All of these agencies are anxious to serve the community,” Flores-Tober said. “Most of the people here are what we call imminently homeless, meaning that they’re on the edge and really struggling to make ends meet. So, this gives them an opportunity to talk with different agencies to help them get past that.”
Donated coats were stacked on a table in the parking lot, and people were allowed to take as many as they needed, Siehl said.
In a separate building, free eye screenings were provided by the state’s Commission for the Blind, and other medical services were offered by Summit Medical Group. HIV screenings were available in a van in the parking lot.
As people entered the Elizabeth Coalition headquarters, they were given a survey to fill out — available in both English and Spanish — regarding their living arrangements.
“Where did you spend the night of Tuesday, Jan. 22?” was just one of 12 questions on the survey. Answer options included “on the street,” “emergency shelter” or “safe haven.”
“All of this data helps us tackle issues related to chronic homelessness,” Flores-Tober said.