NEWARK, NJ - Intermingled among commuters rushing to trains and busses at Newark’s Penn Station is something officials consider a hindrance to economic development opportunities key to rehabbing the city’s image: The homeless.
Some sit on piles of what belongings they have left. Others are sprawled out sleeping on the cold floor surrounded by food scraps. They scoot themselves on wheelchairs in corridors, past the dry cleaner and kiosks selling popcorn and jewelry.
Across from the Dunkin Donuts, a sign in the waiting area warns people may not sit on benches for longer than two hours, clearly aimed at those who have nowhere else to go that day.
On a recent chilly morning, Madison Ricks, a case manager with Bridges Outreach, approaches a man and asks him what his top need is: Shelter.
Another states simply: Socks and a shower.
Newark’s homeless have congregated inside Penn Station for years. Now, Mayor Ras Baraka’s administration is devising a new approach to help them, but also move them out of an area that is the entry and exit point for many visitors, city workers and residents.
“Entities and companies and individuals who come in and out of the city for the purpose of business, in a measured degree, make a decision based on whether they come through unhindered or not being panhandled,” said Mark Wade, the head of the Newark’s Health Department.
Wade said the city is working a fine line between wanting to help the homeless compassionately while also recognizing its impact on the rest of the population and future development imperative to the city’s future.
“The general population is unhappy with seeing individuals on the street, one, because they’re compassionate, but also because it becomes a negative interaction in many cases,” said Wade, who is leading the city’s efforts to combat homeless issues.
For the past two years, Newark officials have been trying to figure out ways to shelter city residents and provide assistance to its homeless. In October, it discovered another problem: New York City’s Special One-Time Assistance Program, which reportedly sent nearly 1,200 people from the Big Apple to Brick City.
Officials do not yet know what impact the SOTA program has had on the city’s homeless resources but are fearful they could be overwhelmed with having to provide services to an increased homeless population, and worse, that it would come at the expense of its own residents seeking refuge.
In an extensive interview with TAPInto Newark, Wade outlined a host of initiatives the city plans to embark on in the next year:
Setting aside $3.3 million to contract beds in more of the city’s 28 shelters, contingent on enhanced case management
An agreement with Integrity House to provide in-patient, out-patient and detox services for drug addiction
Working with Rutgers University to provide professional mental health services
Working with Bridges Outreach to expand its existing services into the nighttime hours, seven days a week.
Creating a database accessible to shelters and agencies to better keep track of people who have interacted with the system. And, determine if that person is a Newark resident.
While the city would shelter all homeless when they are found overnight, the goal by morning would be to connect non-Newark residents with the social service agency in their municipality of origin, who would take over that person’s case from there, Wade said.
When he outlined this plan to the City Council earlier this month, Wade was lauded for coming up with a way for other municipalities to take responsibility for its own residents.
“Every community needs to have the same level of commitment that you’ve demonstrated to deal with your most vulnerable citizens,” North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos said.
The new $155,000 Bridges contract is part of a larger effort to partner with dozens of agencies that already provide homeless services in Newark to expand what is already available as a means to get as many people off the street as possible.
“It became evident to me that most of what we need we already have,” Wade said. “It’s a matter of bringing us together in a collaborative fashion, minimizing the silo-ism.”
Newark had 1,928 homeless people in January 2019, according to that year’s point-in-time count conducted by Monarch Housing Associates. In 2018, Monarch counted 1,927 people, accounting for the majority of homeless people in Essex County, which has the most homeless people in all of New Jersey.
The city currently has contracts with six of the 28 shelters in Newark, the largest among them the H.E.L.P. Center, commonly known by its address, 224 Sussex, in which the city plans to contract 400 beds.
Wade hopes upcoming bids — otherwise known as RFP’s — will result in more shelters, which are mostly funded by Essex County, to enter into financial agreements with Newark where eligibility requirements would be far less stringent for individuals than simply qualifying for welfare.
When asked why more shelters did not jump at the chance to receive city money — Wade pointed to a historically shoddy financial reputation.
“The major reason for not responding... has been the city’s not so sterling payment history,” Wade said.
Scenes around the city
As one of New Jersey’s largest transit hubs, Newark Penn sends PATH passengers on a direct line to the World Trade Center while Amtrak customers sprint to business in Washington and NJ Transit riders commute back to their suburban homes.
Ricks’ face is a familiar one to those who have bunkered up inside the station.
Just off the main terminal, Ricks engages with a woman who is trying to find a way to obtain identification for her partner, a service Bridges provides to many homeless without charge.
The holdup, however, is that her partner can’t stop by Bridges’ Halsey Street location to pick it up. He works during its office hours: from 7 a.m. until 4 p.m., yet still effectively lives inside Penn Station.
Her story is one Ricks says combats a chief misconception: That many homeless people are looking for handouts. The reality is, they are among the city’s working poor.
At the St. John Church soup kitchen, Ricks walks along a line of two dozen men waiting outside to be fed lunch.
Another man describes his scenario: He has gotten a job offer in Belleville but has no money to get there for the first two weeks until he gets the first paycheck. If he can’t catch a bus, he would have to walk 1 1/2 hours before starting a 10-hour shift.
Some men decline Ricks’ offer to find out what Bridges may offer them.
Having worked with Bridges for the last five years, Ricks says she often encounters people who prefer living on the street because they had a bad experience at a shelter.
Ricks says the top need she often hears are people who need to obtain identification to begin any financial or residential processes.
In addition to showers in the morning, the agency’s Halsey Street location assists the homeless with job training programs, access to primary medical care and mental health referrals. The most common issue Ricks says she finds among some of the 25 people she sees each week is drug addiction.
Richard Uniacke, Bridges’ executive director, said this isn’t the first time the agency has partnered with the city, but it’s definitely the biggest sum it has been awarded.
Uniacke said he’s observed Newark having difficulties closing down temporary shelters it opens when a Code Blue is enforced due to temperatures dipping below freezing. It has, at times, resulted in demonstrations.
“Every little effort that isn’t even a little effort has been met with ‘yeah that’s great but it’s not enough,’” Uniacke said.
Wade said another sect of the population the city plans to focus on are some of its homeless children. That would come in the form of establishing certain partnerships with the Newark Public School system. At the city's YMCA, which accepts families as opposed to only individual adults, more than 100 children are living in emergency shelter.
“Our work is not just the downtown chronically homeless in Penn Station," Wade said. "That’s the most visible, but our work is for the 2,000-plus.”
Both Wade and Uniacke said they did not factor in pushback from surrounding municipalities when coming up with the relocation plan for non-Newark residents.
While it was debating awarding the contract to Bridges on Oct 22, the City Council addressed the notion of outsiders taxing Newark’s homeless resources.
They encouraged the Baraka administration to find a way to return people back to where they originated and find ways to avoid having them coming to Newark in the first place. Baraka did not respond to several requests for comment.
“The more services we provide, the larger the population becomes,” Councilman At-Large Carlos M. Gonzalez said.
Homeless experts said that notion has been debunked.
According to The Coalition for the Homeless, a New York City-based advocacy group, data shows people who are homeless often stay near their communities.
“Many families categorized as ‘out of town’ are in fact native New Yorkers who have lost their housing in neighboring communities, like New Jersey or Long Island, and are merely seeking temporary housing in their hometown,” the coalition states. “The real increase in homelessness comes from the lack of real affordable housing and few resources for people to move out of shelters and into permanent housing.”
Problems may also arise around the notion that people are better off returning to their municipality of origin. Some of the reasons they may have left was to escape problems such as abuse, mental illness and drug addiction, said Rutgers assistant professor Emmy Tiderington whose work has centered on homeless issues.
“You can’t assume a warm handoff is happening,” Tiderington said.
What Bridges does not plan to do Uniacke said, is force someone who is not a Newark resident to return to their hometown of origin if they don’t want to.
“The idea is that returning people to their communities is in everybody’s best interest,” Uniacke said. “Returning people to their families, to their communities, to places where they can best be provided with the services that they need is certainly an important part of that.
As part of its relocation plan in the outreach contract, Bridges would transport people back to their municipality of origin if they are from within a 20-mile radius of Newark. For those from further out, Bridges could provide them with bus tickets. The agency would then follow-up to make sure the person reached their destination, Uniacke said.
The city, too, is cognizant that relocation efforts don’t become out hand.
“We’re very conscious also of not becoming a travel agency where individuals figure out ‘oh, this is all I have to do and I could get a trip to California,’” Wade told the council.
There are also relocation efforts within the city in terms of where homeless services are provided.
City officials recently decided to stop allowing agencies to provide feeding services inside Penn Station and in nearby Peter Francisco Park, instead encouraging an expansion of such efforts at St. John Church and St. James Church, just a few blocks away.
Wade said the city does not intend to stop agencies from doing their work so long as it occurs in certain places in the city.
“As long as we can accommodate the desire but do it in a way that doesn’t continue to inhibit the development of the city, we should have a win-win,” he said.