Homelessness highest in Essex County, annual count finds

By: - September 21, 2021 4:18 pm

A “tent city” in Camden, New Jersey is seen in this file photo from 2013. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Nearly 8,100 people experienced homelessness on a single January night this year in New Jersey, with nearly a quarter of them living in Essex County, according to a new report on the federally mandated annual enumeration known as the Point in Time Count.

The numbers seem to show homelessness has decreased from last year, when 9,663 people were counted living on the streets or in shelters, motels, transitional housing, or safe haven programs. But the nonprofit reporting the count warns the pandemic may have resulted in a count that is less reliable than usual.

This year’s count again shows one troubling trend that transcended the pandemic: deep racial disparities in the homeless population. The report found about half of New Jersey’s homeless population is Black, even though Black people make up just 13% of the state’s total population. That state trend mirrors national disparities.

Other key findings:

  • Most of the 8,097 people experiencing homelessness in New Jersey — 7,166 people — were in locations like shelters, motels, and transitional housing. About 12% — 835 people — were living on the street or otherwise unsheltered.
  • Over 18%, or 1,493 people, were considered chronically homeless.
  • Thirty-seven percent of those experiencing homelessness were counted as families
  • Thirty-six unaccompanied people under age 18 were homeless.
  • Essex County by far reported the largest number — 1,693 — of people experiencing homelessness. Hudson County was next highest, with 882. The counties with the lowest counts were Salem, with 34, and Sussex, with 36.

The pandemic created unprecedented challenges for advocates working to quantify the state’s unhoused population, forcing enumerators to change their measures and methods, according to Monarch Housing Associates, the Cranford-based nonprofit that reports New Jersey’s annual count. The report, consequently, cautions against comparing the 2021 count to previous years.

Fewer volunteers helped in the count, for example. And COVID-19 safety protocols prevented social service providers from hosting indoor “Project Homeless Connect” events, which act as one-stop resource fairs where people experiencing homelessness can get food, clothing, haircuts, and more while they are getting counted.

Federal authorities allowed the state to expand their counting effort to 14 days, instead of the usual seven, to offset the pandemic challenges.

Advocates have long lambasted the count as unreliable anyway.

Still, it informs federal funding decisions for homelessness services and is used by counties to decide how many emergency warming centers they should open to shelter unhoused people from freezing weather. It also offers insights into how people become homeless, so lawmakers and providers can implement preventative measures and interventions.

Advocates say efforts to reduce homelessness should include input from people experiencing it firsthand.

“We cannot begin to address the racial inequities in our systems and begin to identify effective solutions without creating space for collaboration with the communities we seek to serve,” said Taiisa Kelly, Monarch’s CEO.

The findings come as the pandemic continues to impact homeless services statewide. Many shelters cut capacity to ensure adequate social distancing. Many providers have lost staff and had to make changes in how they serve people in need.

Advocates acknowledged federal funding for homelessness services increased during the pandemic, and that — along with eviction moratoriums — likely helped more people stay housed even as the economy sank.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.