Advocates have used one-stop resource fairs, like this one which provided health screenings in Newark, to help get an accurate count of the state’s homeless community. The “Project Homeless Connect” events didn’t happen this year because of pandemic-related restrictions, leading many to expect the undercount will be higher than usual. (File photo by Rick Gershon/Getty Images)
Advocates who track and serve New Jersey’s homeless population are expected to release results within the next few weeks of their annual count of unhoused people, a normally imprecise count advocates agree will be even more unreliable this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Advocates have long said the federally mandated count doesn’t paint a true picture of homelessness in the nation. The data-gathering effort was further hindered in 2021 by fewer volunteers and restrictions on outdoor and indoor gatherings.
“It will be an undercount,” said Kasey Vienckowski, who leads the Ending Homelessness team at Monarch Housing, the Cranford-based nonprofit responsible for reporting New Jersey’s Point in Time Count results. “In this global pandemic that no one anticipated, the numbers are what they are.”
Accurate or not, the count has been vital since it started in 2005 because it informs federal funding decisions for homelessness services. It also offers insights into how people become homeless, so lawmakers and providers can implement preventative measures and interventions.
And the count is used by counties to decide how many emergency warming centers they should open to shelter homeless people from freezing weather.
How the Point in Time Count works
Every January, an army of volunteers comb communities nationwide during one 24-hour period looking for sheltered and unsheltered homeless people in an exercise mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Besides counting unhoused people, advocates try to link them to health care and other services to move them out of homelessness.
In a normal year, that’s a daunting task. Many homeless people are “hidden,” staying temporarily in motels or with friends or family “in the sorts of living arrangements that are not sustainable,” said Arnold Cohen, senior policy adviser at the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey. A winter count also ensures enumerators miss the people who leave the streets to seek shelter from the cold, Cohen added.
The pandemic made counting even tougher, according to Vienckowski.
Many volunteers who historically participated in the effort bowed out this year, due to concerns about COVID-19, she said.
And because of social distancing and other pandemic precautions, working indoors was prohibited. That meant counters could not rely on their usual go-to places for finding homeless people, like shelters, soup kitchens, food pantries and crisis centers. Advocates also couldn’t hold their usual “Project Homeless Connect” events — one-stop resource fairs where homeless people can get everything from haircuts to health care to housing referrals — because of pandemic-related gathering restrictions.
Because of the special difficulties related to the 2021 count, Vienckowski said, Monarch will not include comparisons to previous years nor analyze trends.
Even before the pandemic, homelessness nationally and statewide was on the rise.
In New Jersey, Monarch reported that 9,663 people were counted as homeless during the 2020 Point in Time count, up 9% from 8,864 the year before. Nationally, HUD reported 580,466 people were counted as homeless, a 2.2% increase from 2019.
“The availability of shelter beds is just not there in New Jersey,” said Kate Leahy, director of New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness. “When this influx potentially happens, it’s really not clear where people will go and what the state’s plan is for that.”
The expected 2021 undercount comes as advocates are bracing for a spike in homelessness, as pandemic-related eviction moratoriums end. Richard J. Uniacke, president of Bridges Outreach, a volunteer-driven nonprofit that delivers meals and more to homeless people in the region, said New Jersey’s existing systems cannot handle the projected “200,000-plus” eviction filings.
“Frankly, we’re extremely concerned,” Uniacke said. “We do, unfortunately, expect a sizable increase in homelessness, probably hidden homelessness for a while with folks sleeping on couches in shared living spaces. But, as we know, being asked to leave a shared residence is the No. 1 reason one finds themselves on the street.”
Advocates for the homeless agree the trend of rising homelessness, coupled with the anticipated wave of evictions, shows New Jersey’s policymakers have their work cut out for them.
Sen. Richard Codey, D-Essex, who in 2012 went undercover as a homeless man in Newark to spotlight what he described as discrimination against men by shelters, has one piece of legislation already in the pipeline to partially address that. He’s a sponsor of a Senate bill now before the budget committee that would create a database of shelter beds statewide and alert providers within an hour of bed availability. He said he expects the bill will pass this fall.
Despite dire predictions of a homelessness spike, Codey is not quite worried yet.
“As the economy recovers, people are going to get back to work eventually, and when the unemployment runs out, the people who use the system to their advantage will go back to work,” Codey said. “I know that may not be the fashionable thing to say, but we’re just going to have to shake it out and see.”
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