Rebecca Rhoads, right, in Asbury Park in January 2020 for the annual Point in Time count of unhoused people. Rhoads leads the New Jersey Office of Homelessness Prevention. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Lara-Collado/ NJ DCA)
With some experts predicting the pandemic could increase homelessness nationally worse than the Great Recession did in 2008, the head of New Jersey’s Office of Homelessness Prevention says the state must create more affordable housing to keep people off streets here.
“Housing is health care. We have to create a pipeline of affordable housing, because that’s what people need,” OHP Director Rebecca Rhoads said.
A March study found an extreme shortage in affordable housing in New Jersey. The National Low Income Housing Coalition quantified the deficit in a report that says New Jersey had nearly 302,000 extremely low-income renter households, yet was short by more than 205,000 affordable rental homes for them.
Poverty has risen since then. Now, nearly a third of New Jerseyans — almost 3 million people — live in poverty, according to a July report by the Legal Services of New Jersey’s Poverty Research Institute.
Rhoads didn’t have a projection for how much homelessness might worsen here, saying a lot remains uncertain as policymakers try to provide relief. But despite an anticipated “tsunami eviction,” she doesn’t expect to see a major jump in the numbers for a year or so.
“It is not often that people are evicted and then become immediately homeless. Usually they first move in with a family member or a friend,” she said.
Last year’s annual count of the state’s unhoused population, done in January 2020, tallied nearly 9,700 people living in homelessness. The results of this year’s count are due soon, although advocates say the “Point in Time Count” is typically an undercount of the true state of homelessness — and the pandemic made this year’s count even more unreliable.
Rhoads said one of her goals is to figure out how the state might more accurately collect and share data to improve “interoperability.” For example, because job loss is one driver of homelessness, a newly unemployed person could be “flagged” for additional supports to prevent homelessness.
“Homelessness is a crisis, and there’s buildup to it,” Rhoads said.
Data is especially important to help fix racial disparities, she added. About 50% of New Jersey’s homeless population is Black, even though Black people only comprise 13% of the state population, according to the N.J. Department of Community Affairs (DCA).
Rhoads has one initiative under way to reduce chronic and unsheltered homelessness across the state. In December, her office launched “Housing First Expansion” to help get people into safe, permanent housing first — and then give them other services for problems that could threaten housing stability like employment, addiction, education, and mental health.
The pandemic, she added, underscores the point that people need their own personal spaces, instead of congregate settings where germs can easily spread, like shelters or transitional housing.
“Shelters are absolutely essential to taking care of people when they hit a tough time and they have no other options. But shelter stays should be brief, they should be seldom, and they should be focused on someone getting the permanent housing they need,” she said. “Transitional housing is very expensive, and just delays the inevitable of people needing permanent housing.”
New Jersey has 102 licensed shelters, and as of this week, more than 3,000 people were staying in them, according to the DCA. That doesn’t include people who live in motels, churches, or other arrangements.
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