In our era of fractured politics, its easy to feel nostalgic for the time in our history when we could set a goal as a nation— like putting a man on the moon — and achieve it. Most Americans alive today were not on the planet when America was a ‘can do’ nation when Neil Armstrong took that “one small step for a man-one great leap for mankind.”
In the years since, we’ve had a Great Recession that lingered and a global war that’s waged on further notice. Meanwhile, our domestic politics grew more and more corrosive by the day. What we appear to be improving on is our ability to use the new tools of social media to tear each other down.
Maybe there’s not much we can do to turn around the sour climate of our increasingly disunited national circumstance. But in a few weeks the state of New Jersey celebrates a fresh start with the inauguration of a new Governor. And while President Trump has made it a top priority to disparage his predecessor, dismantling as much as President Obama’s legacy as he can, it would be refreshing if Governor-elect Phil Murphy could strike a more harmonious chord. He could do that by recognizing the progress the state has made on combating the scourge of homelessness on Governor Christie’s watch.
While Governor Christie has gotten deserved applause for shifting the state’s drug addiction debate away from one framed as solely a criminal justice matter, to being more of a public health concern, his administration’s role in reducing homelessness has largely flown under the media radar.
In the decade between 2007 and 2017 our state actually reduced our homeless population by over 50 percent, the biggest such reduction of any state in the nation. Over the same period, the entire country saw just a 14.4 percent decline. By contrast, New York State saw a 43 percent spike and Washington DC, a more than a 40 percent jump over the same period, according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development Annual Homeless Report that was released last month. Since 2007 HUD has been required by Congress to produce the annual detailed assessment of the country’s homelessness problem.
For New Jersey, even with the 50 percent reduction, the state still has over 8,500 homeless people according to last year’s count which will be updated later this month. Currently, New York state has close to 90,000 homeless, over 63,000 of whom are in New York City. For context, consider that New York’s population is close to 20 million while New York City’s and New Jersey’s are both approaching nine million.
Back in 2012, when Governor Christie formed an interagency panel to devise a ten year plan to prevent and end homelessness, it probably seemed like just a well intentioned rhetorical flourish. Yet, now, with substantial progress made already, this is a baton the Governor-elect can easily grab and run with. In the process, he can re-focus our public imagination on the achievable goal of being the first state to actually end homelessness.
So what did New Jersey do right that we can build on? In addition to creating an effective intra-agency collaboration at the state level, the Christie administration looked for local success stories as models. The key agencies included the Department of Community Affairs, the Department of Human Services, the Department of Children and Families and the Department of Military ad Veteran Affairs. But the Christie administration did not just use a top down strategy rather they spent time looking for local success stories.
“As part of this initiative, the Department of Community Affairs identified local partnerships that serve as incubators for best practices in housing and services for a variety of vulnerable populations,” wrote Tammori Petty, the director of communications for New Jersey’s Department of Community Affairs, in an e:mail. “Tenant-based vouchers and service funding have been awarded to organizations that have experience with assisting households in finding housing and providing ongoing supportive services, including but not limited to medical services, mental health, case management, substance abuse treatment and employment training.”
Petty observed that stepping up the sense of urgency of getting people into shelter was critical as well. “The most significant recommendation focused on moving individuals and families to housing as quickly as possible and providing the necessary services and support to keep them stably housed. As a result, the DCA immediately began to adapt its housing voucher programs to integrate primary health care and behavioral health services with immediate access to housing for the chronically homeless; provide rapid access to housing for families experiencing short term homelessness and collaborating with our sister agencies to focus on specific populations experiencing homelessness for particular reasons.”
Making “housing first” their operational imperative meant that shelter advocates didn’t let drug addiction or mental health issues slow down getting people the shelter they needed. “We’re not going to screen out folks who haven’t been able to deal with either their substance abuse issues or their mental health issues prior to entering housing,” Jay Everett, with Monarch Housing Associates, told WHYY in an interview. Monarch, one of the state’s leading affordable housing non-profits, conducts the state’s annual 21 county homeless count that HUD relies on for its annual report to Congress.
Continuity of effort is key to maintaining the progress the state has made. As good as the news is about New Jersey’s performance over the last ten years in reducing homelessness, last year it was still on the increase in nine of of our 21 counties, with significant jumps in Essex and Middlesex counties. And 1,442 persons, who were identified as homeless, were un-sheltered; up 48% from the 974 persons counted in 2015.
Post Great Recession, in many neighborhoods in the state’s more rural and urban areas a real economic recovery remains elusive. Last year the Asbury Park Press reported that poverty was at a fifty year high in the state. According to the United Way’s ALICE survey, which stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, and Employed, 37 percent of the state’s households struggle economically week to week. Unlike the national Federal poverty level calculation, ALICE incorporates the far higher local regional costs for housing, taxes, transportation, childcare, food and healthcare. By comparison, in 2009 just 29 percent of the state fell into the ALICE cohort.
A key challenge to further reducing homelessness is the shrinking stock of affordable housing. By some estimates, the state is short well over 200,000 affordable housing units. That scarcity has driven up prices to the point that hundreds of thousands of New Jersey’s families pay well over the recommended 30 percent of their income for shelter. As a consequence, other basic spending priorities like health care, food, education and childcare get squeezed for a growing percentage of the state’s households struggling to make ends meet.
“High housing costs mean families have less money to spend on other essentials (such as food or healthcare), and none leftover to save,” said Stephanie Hoopes, the lead author and researcher on the United Way’s ALICE report survey, which now has been replicated in 15 other states. “As a result, when a family faces a crisis, such as cancer or a natural disaster, they may not be able to pay the rent and all too quickly could become homeless.”
Hoopes continued. “What may surprise your readers is how many homeless people are working. As our economy approaches full employment, it’s important to recognize that having a job does not mean a family is financially stable. Low wages and or part-time schedules keep many families living paycheck to paycheck.”
Yet, even as New Jersey families struggle to find affordable housing there are several thousand so called ‘zombie homes’ sitting vacant and deteriorating, caught up somewhere in the foreclosure process. As a candidate, Governor elect Murphy proposed using millions of dollars in still unspent Wall Street federal mortgage settlement money to purchase and rehab this shadow housing stock in partnership with community based no-profits.
A key ingredient to the progress New Jersey has made over the last decade in combating homelessness has been thanks to the army of volunteers who staff and support non-profits, food pantries and shelters in all of the state’s 21 counties. These opportunities usually require a few hours of orientation. On the night of Tuesday January 24th, under the leadership of the non-profit Monarch Housing Associates, many of these unsung local heroes will be out looking to get an actual head count of the state’s homeless population. The data they collect is part of a national effort that provides HUD with an accurate census of those across the country who lack shelter.
These numbers will be more important than ever in a red hot debate over proposed Federal cuts to HUD, Affordable Housing support programs, and Community Block Development Grants that local governments rely on to combat homelessness.
Late last year, a proposal by the Trump administration to cut a $460 million program to end homelessness for the nation’s veterans was reversed. That only came after a national outcry and the release of the annual HUD survey that showed that despite years of progress in reducing veteran homelessness it was now on the increase again.
Our level of personal engagement matters on this issue and after a decade of progress now is not the time to be complacent on attaining the goal of ending homelessness in our state. We can do this.