Newark, NJ—Antoinette Jackson, Sonya Webb and Andrea Eaddy sit in a McDonald’s on a cold winter morning, not far from the homeless shelter they currently call home.
During the day, they count on places like McDonald's to stay warm. They must leave the shelter at 7 a.m. and can only return after 4 p.m., even when temperatures drop below freezing.
When the shelter at 224 Sussex Avenue in Newark's Central Ward opened in December, the women hoped it would live up to the city's promise of providing homeless a warm, safe and happy—if only temporary—haven.
But according to the women, the shelter is a place of endless indignities—filthy and unsanitary conditions, rampant theft and sparse and non-nutritive food.
The shelter is operated by local nonprofit agency Emergency Housing Services, Inc., which has a $388,000 contract with the city, with funding coming from the city and federal grant monies.
The 100-person facility officially opened with a gala ribbon cutting on December 21, with Newark Mayor Ras Baraka in attendance, local Boy Scouts volunteering and serving up meals and bags of fresh produce lined up and ready for the shelter’s new temporary residents.
“I'm sure especially during the holiday season, it’s a serious blessing to be able to have a warm shower, a warm place to sleep, and a place where they don't have to worry that they're going to throw you out in the daytime,” Baraka was quoted as saying in a December nj.com interview.
But residents allege it was all a show.
“They had the cameramen and the news come and had boxes of vegetables sitting there,” Jackson said. “They had the Boy Scouts in the cafeteria to serve us and little Green Giant bags with vegetables in them. They were for show. They were frozen vegetables that we had to heat up in the microwave and we haven’t gotten vegetables since. The mayor came, took pictures and left.”
Homelessness is a longstanding problem in Newark, which has some 30 shelters.
According to a report released by Monarch Housing Associates—a Cranford-based housing advocacy group—6,340 households, including 8,532 people, experienced homelessness in New Jersey in 2017.
Essex County had the highest rate of homelessness, with 2,048 counted, or 24 percent of the state total. The state’s 20 other counties trailed far behind Essex, with Hudson County the second highest at 822.
The three women—all of whom are mothers of grown children as well as grandmothers—say the shelter at 224 Sussex Avenue has not lived up to its promises since they arrived last month and claim they have been regularly kicked out in Code Blue, or below-freezing conditions.
A Code Blue alert is declared when temperatures drop below the freezing point and allows authorities to take homeless people to local shelters or other agencies when temperatures drop to 32 degrees or below.
“We were pushed out at 7 am and it was 18 degrees,” Jackson, 62, said of the morning of Saturday, February 3. “The kids were kicked out too. You have to be gone by 7 am or they write you up and you can’t go back. They say it 99 times in the morning, like you can’t comprehend it.”
Webb, 51, who takes seizure medication, said she was kicked out a few mornings ago before she had a chance to take her pills.
“They didn’t let me take my pills,” she said. “They rushed to get us out.”
The women say shelter rules mandate that they don't leave any personal belongings behind, and so they must spend their days dragging their bags from one location to the next until they are allowed back into the shelter at 4 p.m.
All three say it's hard on their backs and shoulders to carry heavy bags through the streets each day.
It’s especially challenging for Webb, a former Newark Public Schools food services worker, whose bandaged feet are encased in large surgical boots.
Webb fell victim to hypothermia and frostbite from her time on the streets and now the bottoms of her feet are black, the skin on her feet gone and no skin or nails on her toes.
She said doctors have said her feet may need to be amputated.
“I change my bandages every day,” said Webb, who had missed her appointment that morning at Social Services because she had no money for bus fare. “My feet are numb but they expect me to walk around," she said of shelter workers.
Jackson, who has been at 224 Sussex since January 2, said she has not received a single fruit, vegetable or protein since she arrived.
Breakfast allegedly consists of cold cereal, while dinner is either cereal or a bowl of cold pasta that residents must warm themselves.
“I’ve had pasta every single night for three weeks,” Jackson said.
Living and bathroom conditions are deplorable, according to the residents.
“The bathroom is disgusting, it’s terrible,” Webb said. “There’s bloody tampons in the toilet and feces. They see it and they don’t care.”
The week the shelter ran out of toilet paper, paper towels, tissues or rags were used, according to the women.
“We did the best we could do,” Jackson said. “Now they have a minimal supply they keep on the desk. We have to ask for it and they rip off some paper from the roll and give it to us.”
The ladies also allege rampant theft by shelter workers and other residents, claiming the facility’s one security guard stays on the ground floor of the five-floor facility.
Jackson claims her money, phone and bus card were stolen last week.
“Anything that you got that they don’t have, they take it,” she said.
If personal belongings are left at the shelter during the day, the ladies allege that workers simply take them.
Jackson's also alleges that her duffle bag was confiscated by a shelter worker. In it was her birth certificate, social security card and items she said are irreplaceable.
“My grandbaby was murdered in 2010 and I had her doll in there,” she said. “I slept with it. It was always in my bag.”
Eaddy, formerly a cook and most recently an employee at Blue Apron, said she was found unresponsive last year due to stress and woke up in the ICU.
“I ended up homeless and then my stuff was stolen at the last shelter I was at,” Eaddy said, holding up a yellow plastic shopping bag. “Everything I own is in this bag,” she said, breaking down into tears.
Eaddy owns one outfit—the dark blue sweat-suit she wears each day, which she washes and rinses in the shelter’s sink.
Although the shelter was reported as having laundry facilities, the women say the washers are only for linens and that they often find themselves sleeping without a sheet of blanket.
“I’m able to work,” Eaddy said. “I just want to have a place where my grandkids can say, ‘I’m going to grandmother’s house.’”
Director of Newark Homeless Services Vickie Donaldson said the allegations of bad conditions at the shelter are untrue.
“We dispute that,” she said. “We hot-box every person that comes in here. If there are unsanitary conditions, it's created by the population. These people are living on the streets. You can imagine what they have when they come in here. If you report to the shelter, it is clean every day."
Donaldson also says that although the shelter was initially set up for 100 people, it has now been expanded to accommodate 200 guests.
“Nobody anticipated the demand would be so great,” she said.
From December 21 through January 31, more than 7,000 people have slept at the shelter, according to Donaldson.
“I’m really sensitive to how we treat people,” Donaldson said. “We are the only shelter in the city that provides meals. We have armed security and a structured day where cleaning is routine. This population is not welcomed at other shelters. These are people who cannot get into other shelters.”
Donaldson said the city is working on assisting residents once the winter season ends and the shelter closes.
A request for comment was not returned by Emergency Housing Services.
But the women say that complaints are ignored by shelter staff or responded to with hostility.
“They say, ‘Then why’d you come here? Then leave,’” Jackson said. “Last week, Ras Baraka and five bodyguards came in and when we started to try to speak with the mayor about the problems, the bodyguards said, ‘nobody can say anything to the mayor because if you do, we’ll kick you out.’”
Allegations of assault have also come to light after a police report was filed by a man who said he was forcibly and violently removed from the shelter.
James Boyle, 40, filed the report on January 25, two days after he claims he attempted to get a bed for the night at the shelter. He alleges five shelter staff members physically assaulted him.
According to the police report, Boyle refused to leave because he believed the supervisor on duty was lying when she claimed there were no available beds.
The supervisor allegedly asked five male staff members to escort Boyle out. Boyle claims he was grabbed and dragged down the hall, into the elevator and out onto the street. He also claims he was punched in the face, resulting in swollen eye.
A nurse at UMDNJ called police after Boyle was brought into the emergency room.
In a January 25 letter to Donaldson, Newark Department of Health and Community Wellness Director Mark Wade, Director and Program Manager for the Newark Homeless Services Kim Gilchrist, Central Ward Councilwoman and mayoral candidate Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins addressed the alleged assault.
“Yesterday, Mr. James Boyle visited our offices to file a grievance,” Chaneyfield Jenkins wrote. “He indicated he was viciously attacked inside the city's shelter located at 224 Sussex Avenue. While speaking with Mr. Boyle he elected to share his injuries with my staff and I. As you can imagine, we are deeply troubled by Mr. Boyle's recount especially as this has occurred inside a city run facility…He indicated he intends to file charges against the individuals who attacked him. From the pictures I think we can all agree this is warranted.”
Donaldson claims that Boyle has a record of being disruptive and that the assault allegations against shelter staff members are being investigated.
Jackson, who said she can no longer get welfare after being told she had “overextended” her benefits, said she wants her own place.
"People see us sitting here with bags and they stereotype you," she said. "But my clothes are clean, my hair is done. People don't know your situation."
Webb hopes to leave the Sussex Avenue shelter and is trying to get on welfare.
On the morning TAPinto Newark met with Eaddy, she needed a ride across town to a community center where she volunteers each week.
"I volunteer here on Tuesday and at the food pantry on Thursdays," she said.
Just yards from the community center at a corner grocery store, an exterior wall has been transformed into a mural with a message.
Eaddy said she reads the message often and hopes that those who can help will read the writing on this particular wall.
“Love your city, protect your city," reads the painted message. "We must be the change we want to see. From wherever you are, whoever you are. You are the mayor, this is your domain. Please take care of your home, we have to do it together.”