NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - Dozens of homeless gathered at Elijah’s Promise, the city’s prominent soup kitchen, for the Point-In-Time Survey, a nationwide census on America’s homeless.
All 21 counties across New Jersey are taking part on Jan. 24 to administer the survey. Elijah’s Promise was one of three agencies coordinating the roll-out of the survey in Middlesex County, the other being the Cathedral CDC in Perth Amboy and the countywide Coming Home of Middlesex County.
The survey is mandated by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In New Jersey, the Cranford-based Monarch Housing Associates oversees the state's roll-out of the survey.
Once the surveys are handed in and the raw data analyzed, the annual survey will provide 2018's "snapshot of homeless,” in different towns, “where they find shelter,” and how they became homeless, according to the official survey.
“The survey looks to measure individuals who are homeless, on the street or in shelters,” said Bobbin Paskell, associate director of Coming Home of Middlesex County. “We also look at people that might just be couchsurfing, so also going from friend’s to families’ houses.”
Paskell added: “The survey also looks at whether or not it’s their first time homeless and how long they’ve been homeless, as well as measuring whether or not they have any special needs. We also look at what is their primary reason they became homeless.”
When the survey was done in 2017, 544 people reported they were homeless the night before the survey was taken.
That was a slight uptick, according to Paskell, despite an enormous net decrease since 2013.
How much did it decrease? Coming Home says they nearly halved the number of Middlesex County’s homeless by 2016, according to the survey.
Strictly speaking, being homeless doesn’t mean just sleeping on the streets, under a bridge, in an abandoned building or in a car, according to the survey.
The survey’s organizers extended the definition to encompass anyone in emergency, youth or domestic violence shelter, a motel or hotel paid for by a social service agency and transitional housing.
Once you come in to Elijah’s Promise and take the survey, questions focus at where you’ve slept the night before and how long that’s been your place of stay, your last permanent address and how you ended up homeless.
In years past, many of the region’s homeless found themselves without a roof over their head because of shelters being at maximum capacity, or unable to afford rent and secure adequate housing before eviction, or lack of a living wage at a place of employment.
“In order to encourage individuals to come in and talk to us, we set up two Project Homeless Connect sites in their cities, to offer food and coats, blankets and incentives to them” Paskell said.
At Elijah's Promise, the peak of surveys were administered during lunch rush, just after 11 a.m. A long line of guests snaked through the main dining room and outside the building.
At the entrance way, guests chatted and smoked cigarettes to stay warm. Busses dropped off groups of more guests, clad in whatever winter-clothing they could carry on their backs.
With Project Homeless Connect, half a dozen community groups had tables set up to give out free resources for the area’s homeless. With such a high concentration of the area’s homeless at the center, there’d be no better time for the groups to promote themselves to potential guests.
Some guests hesitantly peaked at a table, pocketed a flyer and darted away. Other guests sat down front and center in front of a table, plopped down whatever they were gathering and with the group’s representatives, slowing picking up and scanning every available piece of literature.
Saint Peter’s University Hospital in New Brunswick set up two tables for free services. At one table, two of Saint Peter’s nurses gave flu shots, while at the other table, two nurses gave tests for blood pressure and blood sugar, as well as medical consultations.
Every few minutes, Robert Mason, the agencies social service coordinator, stood up to make the announcement for the free flu shots: they were only offered once a year.
Looking to help some of the area’s most vulnerable residents, the homeless undocumented immigrants, the Puerto Rican Action Board (PRAB) had a table there to offer program information.
Services ranged from legal consultation, navigating the lengthy citizenship process and English as a Second Language classes.
Women Aware, which runs the county’s homeless shelter for domestic violence victims, had a table there, manned by Sarnya KP from the Rutgers University School of Social Work.
“Domestic violence is inter-sectional,” KP said. “A lot of the homeless population might have undergone domestic violence, they might not know where the resources are, because they might not have access to internet. They might not be able to find that there is a domestic violence agency located in town.”
Once a victim walked in to, for example, Elijah’s Promise, he or she can make the call to the center’s 24/7 hotline and get set up with whatever he or she may need, KP said.
The location of the shelter is undisclosed, so as to protect the guests seeking safety from their abusers.
“It is the largest causes of homelessness actually,” KP said, in reference to domestic violence.
Towards the afternoon, volunteers and Elijah’s Promise staff readied themselves to hit the pavement, brave the choppy weather and administer surveys across New Brunswick.
While the lion’s share of surveys are being given out on Jan. 24, according to Paskell local hospitals, police agencies, schools and social service agencies have copies of the survey on hand.