NEWARK, NJ — Tuesday was a sunlit morning on the Raymond Plaza side of Newark Penn Station. Those who call the transit hub their home milled about sharing conversation and cigarillos.
Inside, more of Newark Penn’s residents stood shoulder-to-shoulder. Their lack of CDC-approved practices, whether in defiance or ignorance of the city and state’s shelter-in-place orders, illustrates how complicated and at-risk this population is during the coronavirus crisis.
Richard Uniacke, the executive director of Bridges Outreach, a nonprofit social services provider contracted through the city, is one of the few on the front lines trying to help.
As the pandemic rages around him and his social workers, the well-being of the homeless community and those they serve has become urgently dependent on their ability to negotiate with individuals to go to shelters.
“It’s hard when you have someone who is accustomed over the course of years (to staying outside), who may or may not have substance use disorder, which does not go well with being in a shelter, who may or may not have mental illness,” Uniacke said. “It’s hard to get them to go to a place where they don’t have that kind of freedom, especially during a pandemic, when they might have to shelter in place.”
There were 1,927 people experiencing homelessness in Newark in 2019, according to Monarch Housing Associates, a nonprofit that ensures access to permanent housing through several initiatives. Fifteen percent of those people were unsheltered.
Newark has been working with the city’s shelters to increase capacity and establish procedures for preventing illness and quarantining those who have potentially contracted coronavirus, Mayor Ras Baraka said during one of his daily updates. Expanding capacity has also been a focus, though it’s not clear whether this makes quarters tighter.
“We are serving and working tirelessly to get as many people off the street, to keep them healthy and safe and find them shelter,” said Theresa Pringle, who serves as the community liaison for the executive board for Newark Homeless Coalition and the Mayor’s Commission on Homelessness.
One of the facilities identified for a quarantine shelter was opened this week in the former Newark Renaissance House Building on Norfolk Street. On Friday, the city called for volunteer RNs, LPNs, home health aides, certified medical assistants, mental health specialists, social workers and “people with management experience” to oversee or staff quarantine and shelter sites.
The city has yet to issue any order to mandate the homeless into shelters, and the legality of a directive is unclear.
“I think that is something that may actually need to happen in order to contain this,” Uniacke said. "They’re so highly vulnerable to this virus, they do often live in congregant and unhygienic settings. It’s an extremely risky population. Part of what we are trying to do is connect people with primary care, behavioral health care, substance use treatment, things they aren’t getting regularly. But there are so many challenges with this."
But the prospect doesn’t appeal to Darryl Baker, whose clothes are still damp from spending the night in the rain. He has his apprehensions about going to a shelter and feels safer outside. The shelter can be a dangerous place where theft occurs, he said.
“The chance of me contracting the virus is even greater. Everyone’s telling me to stay home, how can I when I’ve got no home to stay in?” he said. “I’m a good person.”
On Monday, NJ Transit Police Chief Andrew Keelan said they were able to clear out around 44 of Newark Penn Station's homeless thanks to their and Bridges’ combined efforts. The release of hundreds of nonviolent offenders from county jails has created an influx, making the task of sheltering residents without addresses almost Sisyphean.
“We don’t want to arrest anyone, that’s not something we’re trying to do,” he said.
On the way to 224 Sussex St., Madison Ricks, clad in one of Bridges’ green reflective vests and a blue mask, points out the window with a gloved hand at a passing church.
“That’s the only soup kitchen that’s still open right now,” she said. “Pretty crazy.”
In the back of the van, a man with crutches is dozing while he waits for his bed at the shelter. It’s a win for the Bridges team, another person they can count as safe. But individually, Ricks does worry about her exposure to the virus, and the loss of volunteers is compounded by an increased need for Bridges’ services.
“It’s been a day-to-day situation as far as daily operations, it’s a lot of anxiety for a lot of us,” she said. “A lot of people are still contacting us about regular services. I think it’s going to get more serious in Newark, there are a lot of people around not taking any precautions.”