UNION COUNTY, NJ — In anticipation of a spike in the population of unhoused people, the state will provide Union County $120,000 and rapid coronavirus testing to help shelter the homeless this winter.

The grant from the state Department of Human Resources will be used with broad discretion for the county’s Code Blue service, which provides shelter known as “warming centers” for the homeless when temperatures dip below 25 degrees without precipitation or 32 degrees with precipitation.

County officials said the $120,000 can be used to assist local nonprofit providers, emergency shelters, hotels for the homeless and other expenses related to Code Blue.

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“The funding is not quite as restrictive as some of the other grant dollars,” said Union County Assistant Director of Human Services Melissa Lespinasse. “They're allowing the counties to have flexibility in order to be able to fully implement Code Blue planning."

To mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, warming centers will require rapid testing provided by the state Department of Health to all of New Jersey’s 21 counties, according to county Human Services Director Debbie-Ann Anderson.

Homeless people will get results back in 10-15 minutes before entering the socially distanced shelters and in the event of a positive test, they will be shuttled to hotels outside the county to quarantine for 14 days.

The grant award marks the first time the state will fund Code Blue, which was previously a non-funded mandate. Anderson speculated that the funding was due to the pandemic as well as an anticipated homeless spike due to illegal evictions, which Anderson said have been happening throughout the county. Gov. Phil Murphy had signed an executive order intended to halt foreclosures and evictions during the pandemic.

Funding was determined by the New Jersey Point-In-Time Count of homeless residents in the state, which says 349 households, including 484 persons, were experiencing homelessness in Union County on the night of Jan. 28, 2020. Those numbers, though, were reported before the pandemic, and Anderson said they not representative of the total homeless population.

“We go out in the community and try to get the numbers of homeless,” she said. “We do a street count, and we do a shelter count. And as you know, a lot of the time, if the weather's not cold, you're not going to find a lot of people. I don't think it's an accurate reflection of the need in our community.”

Anderson said the county spent $350,000 from Jan. 1 to Nov. 1 for the homeless and will likely spend another $300,000 between Jan. 1 to April 1.

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