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Cumberland pastor wants trust fund for homeless

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THOMAS BARLAS, Staff Writer, Press of Atlantic City

Folks go to Bethany Grace Community Church in Bridgeton every Saturday morning to be cleansed.

They’re homeless, and they’re not seeking forgiveness, but rather a hot shower, which the church provides along with some food and clothing.

Pastor Robin Weinstein would love the program to end because, he said, it will mean Cumberland County has managed to find places for all its homeless citizens to live. He is pursuing that lofty goal by pushing for new programs — including a homeless trust fund and better ways of finding living quarters for the homeless — to significantly reduce homelessness within the county’s borders.

“We don’t do a very good job in terms of preventing homelessness and in getting people out of the cycle of homelessness,” he said.

Weinstein’s efforts are beginning to pay off: The Cumberland County Board of Chosen Freeholders could begin discussions later this month on creating a homeless trust fund. Money would come from a $3 fee that could be imposed on deeds, mortgages and other documents filed with the county Clerk’s Office.

County Freeholder Director Joseph Derella said the trust fund could raise an estimated $75,000 a year.

“It’s a good start,” he said.

But the program might not start for a while, Derella said, for while the initiative has support on the freeholder board, there are a number of steps that must be taken before it’s in place. The county must meet state requirements, ranging from accountability for the money raised to the creation of a special committee — which must include some former homeless people — to administer the trust fund.

“We need to make sure that we all understand the process … so we don’t have any problems,” Derella said.

Weinstein wants to take the effort even further.

Weinstein also advocates a “Homeless First” initiative. That initiative, which is gaining momentum nationally, differs from conventional methods in that it first provides the homeless with places to live. Qualifying programs and services such as mental-health counseling are provided after the homeless people move into their living quarters.

“Homeless First” programs helped Utah and New York not only reduce homelessness but also costs related to the homeless, he said. Estimates show “Homeless First” helped some Florida communities reduce homeless-related costs by more than 60 percent, he said.

Weinstein, a member of the Cumberland County Board of Social Services, said it can cost as much as $40,000 a year to help a chronically homeless person in Cumberland County. That figure not only includes taxpayer dollars, but costs related to things such as ambulance and hospital services. A “Homeless First” approach in Cumberland County, coupled with financial help from the trust fund, could cut that cost in half, he said.

The “Homeless First” program could also incorporate a proposal by Bridgeton Mayor Albert Kelly to use so-called “tiny homes” of perhaps no more than 200 square feet as residences for the homeless, Weinstein said.

Other counties in New Jersey have either considered, or implemented, homeless trust funds.

Atlantic County’s freeholders voted 5-3 last July against creating a homeless trust fund. The freeholders said that while homelessness must be addressed, the majority of the panel felt the trust fund wasn’t the best way to proceed.

Bergen County operates both a homeless trust fund and a “Homeless First” program.

Trust fund money helps finance administrative costs and helps pay for case management and administrative costs, said Julia Orlando, Bergen County’s health and human services director. The money helps fill funding gaps created by a lack of state and federal money, she said.

Orlando said the two programs have helped the county find places to live for about 800 homeless people over the past five years, she said. The program also helped “significantly decrease” the homeless problem in Hackensack, the Bergen County seat, she said.

“We don’t have people sleeping on benches or panhandling,” she said. “We know that our chronic homeless numbers are down.”

Camden County officials said their homeless trust fund raised about $564,000 since 2011. About $400,000 was spent over the years on various homeless programs, they said.

When asked if the trust fund helped reduce homelessness, Camden County Administrator Ross Angilella replied, “I’m going to say probably not.”

However, Angilella said the county is working with the state Department of Community Affairs to include a “Housing First” program.

“We believe that when that gets going, we will see some pretty tangible improvements in our homeless population,” he said.

Angilella said county officials don’t regret starting the homeless trust fund.

“There was discussion about initiating the trust fund at the freeholder board level,” he said. “That went on over the course of many months. Finally, we decided to do it. I don’t think we ever looked back.”

Derella said Cumberland County officials will review programs in other counties to determine which one will work best in Cumberland.

Weinstein, whose efforts to get the homeless trust fund in place includes an online petition, wants Cumberland to act as soon as possible.

“We don’t want this to be bogged down in bureaucracy to the point where we can’t get something started,” he said. “We’re talking about people. We’re talking about lives.”

Sidebar...HOMELESSNESS IN NEW JERSEY

Officials say an accurate count of New Jersey’s homeless is difficult, in part because a significant part of the homeless population is transient.

An annual “Point in Time” survey of homeless in the state, performed this year on Jan. 27 and Feb. 3, revealed the following for those two days:

— 10,211 people were homeless.

— 1,425 people were considered to be chronically homeless.

— 974 people were “unsheltered” at night.

The survey also put the number of homeless people on those days at:

— 548 in Atlantic County.

— 157 in Cape May County.

— 201 in Cumberland County.

— 605 in Ocean County.

Essex County had the largest number of homeless people, at 1,723, while the smallest homeless population, 38 people, was in Salem County.

 

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The Supportive Housing Association of New Jersey (SHA) is a statewide, nonprofit organization, founded in 1998, whose mission is to promote and maintain a strong supportive housing industry in New Jersey serving people with special needs.

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