HACKENSACK, NJ – In 2009, a manor-like complex on South River Street situated in the midst of Hackensack’s bustling downtown opened its doors and its hearts to disadvantaged individuals from young adults to veterans who are in need of basic amenities such as a warm bed, food, clothing, and some camaraderie.
A decade later, this grand structure, which the community has come to know as the Bergen County Housing, Health and Human Services Center, has upheld its reputation as not only a beloved haven for homeless individuals, but for its self-proclaimed "unwavering commitment to conquer homelessness, change lives and inspire success." On the afternoon of October 1 inside Two Bergen County Plaza, county leaders celebrated the Center’s tenth year in operation with a slew of heartfelt speeches and plenty of cake.
“Ten years ago, we opened the doors to the Bergen County Housing, Health and Human Services Center to serve the most vulnerable in our community,” said center director Julia Orlando. “It was frightening and it was hard and incredibly rewarding. And even though a decade has passed, and we have accomplished many things together, and improved our crisis homeless response system, many of these things stay the same, because housing ends homelessness. And everything else we do with the center is designed to give back.”
Since its inception, the Center -- with help from an army of local volunteers from congregations to synagogues to high school students -- has served 709,960 meals and housed 1,408 individuals, 264 of which were chronically homeless. Orlando said the average length of stay at the Center is roughly two months, although they’re working to get that number down. The 27,000 square-foot, 90-bed facility works in conjunction with Bergen County and the Bergen County Housing Authority in addition to collaborating with CarePlus NJ, Christ Church Community Development Corporation and North Jersey Friendship House. Because of such collaborations, Bergen County has, in the last three years, been certified by the Department of Housing and Urban Development as the first county in the state to end chronic homelessness among veterans in addition to recognizing the county as the first in the country to reach “functional zero” for chronic homelessness. This status denotes the number of people entering and leaving the system every month essentially cancel each other out.
“The Bergen County Housing Authority is proud to support the Bergen County Housing, Health and Human Services Center,” said Lynn Bartlett, executive director of the Housing Authority of Bergen County.
Bartlett added that the housing authority’s resources have provided more than $25 million in direct client assistance in the form of rental assistance, leveraging $3.5 million in support of services.
Since its inception, a Young Adult Task Force comprising young adults who have experienced homelessness was created to target homeless individuals ages 18-24.
“I believe that one of the things that really sets our shelter apart is the commitment of the volunteers,” said Bergen County Executive James Tedesco. “People who want to be there making a difference in the lives of people every day. It’s really overwhelming and it’s so impactful to see how people react.”
One such person helped by the Center, Marguerite Masac, expressed her gratitude for her time there, a place she described as more of a “hotel” where a “little girl who longed for someone to listen to her, to help her, to love her and show affection to her and to motivate her” was shown that love “by a group of staff who looked at her as a person and not like the mistakes she had made.”
After a six-month stay, Masac found a home via the Alliance Against Homelessness where she said she found a “normal life” for her and her newborn son and felt like she was a part of a family.
“My life is a lot different from when I walked into the shelter almost three years ago,” she said to the crowd. “In addition to being a new mom, I also enrolled into Bergen Community College studying to become a certified drug and alcohol counselor.”
Alice Beghyn, a mother of four who also benefited from the Center’s services and those of Advanced Housing, said a painful divorce left her homeless, lonely and depressed.
“Life is a journey of trials and tribulations,” she said. “Never in my life did I ever think that I would get divorced and be on my own. But life happens.”
After clinging to the words of wisdom from her grandfather who told her “keep going, don’t look back,” Alice said after praying she was guided to the right people.
“This is where my new chapter began,” she said of her three-month stint. “The staff made me feel safe. I was able to concentrate with getting on with my life instead of giving up.”
She continued, “It’s never too late to turn your life around, and I am proof of that,” she said. “It’s easy to give up and hard to fight. But when you have people who believe in you it’s possible. And that makes the fight worth it."
Jeffrey Irving, another man who was serviced by the Center who is now an employee with the Friendship House in Hackensack, read a poem he authored entitled, “Homelessness,” the first lines of which read: “we live, we die, most of us don’t know why.” He talked about how he had been in a place in his life where “the sun didn’t shine,” and how he held his pain “deep inside" and "almost died,” fell and crawled, but eventually saw the light which brought with it "healing, conviction and hope."
After expressing his gratitude to the audience, Orlando made the same acknowledgement.
“It is with great pride and gratitude that I’ve had the privilege to work with this incredible collaboration of government and faith-based leaders, dedicated nonprofit providers, and committee members,” said Orlando.
After thanking all volunteers for their efforts, a slew of certificates of appreciation from the county, John Hogan’s Office, and Assembly members Valerie Huttle and Lisa Swain, of Districts 37 and 38, respectively, among others, were bestowed to Teaneck’s Dominick Caccamo, a volunteer who has hand-delivered clothing items from socks to hats to the Center twice a month for the past six years.
Said Orlando, “To everyone in the room who has been a part of this important work, may you know that every time that someone puts their head down on the pillow in their own safe place to live, that’s a homerun for all of us.”