Rahway vigil brings problem of homelessness to the forefront

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

RAHWAY, NJ — The Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless hosted its Union County Homeless Persons Memorial Vigil on Thursday, Dec. 22, at the Zion Lutheran Church on Elm Avenue in Rahway. Community Access Unlimited and the Union County Interfaith Coordinating Council also took part in the event. The Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless has organized this service for the last 10 years, usually at the time of the winter solstice. Led by Executive Director Linda Flores-Tober, the coalition collaborated with NJ Sews in Unity and the Guiding Star United Holy Church on Trinity Place in Elizabeth to provide food bags, hand-sewn winter hats, scarves and coats to those who are housing insecure. NJ Sews in Unity collected and donated more than 200 coats to people in need this year.

“The Guiding Star church, in addition to helping with this annual vigil, also hosts annual Christmas concerts and toy drives,” Guiding Star United Holy Church outreach leader Shantee Bracy told Union County LocalSource. “We hold annual clothing drives, youth education programs and Zumba classes with our local nurse.”

The Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless, which was started in 1981, has been focused on solving homelessness for the past 41 years. In addition to providing emergency shelter, it has expanded to provide myriad other services as well.

“We provide assistance with utilities payments, transitional housing… (we) host a day care service and after-school program,” coalition worker Jatasha Sharif told LocalSource. “We also work with the St. Joseph Social Service Center to provide assistance with prescription medicine, food insecurity via a food pantry, job training and Alcoholics Anonymous support.”

The Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless leaves no stone unturned in its mission to solve homelessness.

“We believe if you can’t bring Muhammed to the mountain, then you bring the mountain to Muhammed,” Flores-Tober told LocalSource.
In previous years, the coalition had an emergency-shelter service called Operation Warm Heart. However, due to COVID-19, it was unable to provide that service this year.

“We had up to 30 people in a hotel in November, which is the most that we’ve ever provided emergency shelter to in a month,” Flores-Tober said.

“There are investors working with local politicians to build local luxury apartments with 30-year tax abatements and are hoarding the properties away from people who need housing,” Flores-Tober said. “There are no affordable housing options for under $2,000 dollars a month.”

She also noted the difference between low-income housing and affordable housing.

“Low-income housing and affordable housing are not the same thing. One is based on wage or salary; the other is based on the income calculator that the (U.S. Department of) Housing and Urban Development determines is affordable,” Flores-Tober said. “Only two municipalities (in New Jersey) have inclusionary zoning for low-income housing: Hoboken and Newark. Everywhere else is fighting against it.”

Flores-Tober also noted the difference in cost between two-bedroom apartments in standard and luxury apartments in Rahway.

“The average cost of a two-bedroom apartment for a family in Rahway is $1,603. The cost of a luxury two-bedroom apartment is $2,203,” she said.

This crisis is forcing tough times and no solutions in sight for the Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless.

“Housing is not a ride on a merry-go-round; it is a human right,” Flores-Tober said. “The definition of chronic homelessness should change to include more people, so that we can help to solve this problem.”

She then went into greater detail about HUD and how it hurt housing.

“HUD’s calculator does not account for today’s income levels,” Flores-Tober said. “(People) had to turn down affordable housing because the landlords didn’t provide disabled care. HUD used that to say that people are turning down affordable housing, which isn’t true.”

She offered some solutions to this problem.

“We need more rent-controlled properties; no luxury houses are under rent control,” Flores-Tober said. “We also must reinvest in education and housing care. We also must address the racism involved. Black and brown people find themselves disproportionately becoming homeless. And lastly, rugged individualism is killing us. Community-based answers will solve this problem.”

Photos Courtesy of Carmine Pernini/Zion Lutheran Church