ELIZABETH, NJ - Youth members from the nonprofit Community Access Unlimited (CAU) hit the streets of Union County at 3 a.m. this past Wednesday morning to participate in the annual Point-in-Time (PIT) count, a national effort to gather information on the homeless at one moment throughout the United States. 

PIT is mandated by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development and relies on local Continuums of Care like CAU to carry out the count.

Data from the PIT count and American Community Survey facilitate analysis of racial disparities among people experiencing homelessness. Such an analysis is a critical first step in identifying and changing racial and ethnic bias in systems and services, according to HUD.

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The CAU youth who participated in the Union County PIT are from the agency's Transitional Opportunities Program, which provides residential housing, independent living skills, advocacy, job placement and educational support to youth aged 13-21 living within New Jersey's child services system. CAU is a Union County-based, statewide nonprofit that strives to integrate people with disabilities and at-risk youth into the general community through comprehensive supports.

Three TOP members and seven CAU staff members joined the countywide effort this year, locating homeless individuals, collecting information and escorting them to the Division of Social Services with the assistance of the Union County Sheriff's Department. 

For TOP member Barshay Stinson, 22, of Elizabeth, his annual PIT experience is meaningful in part because of his own past. When he was younger, his family lived for five years with no heat or lights and were eventually evicted from their home. 

"It means a lot to me because I'm doing something good for the community and it’s really important to get these people off the streets and into safe shelters," he said. "It really hurts to see a lot of people going through what they're going through. I wish situations worked out for them better, but the best thing we can do is try to support them and get them the most help we can."

The CAU members and staff worked with Union County Sheriff's Officer Lloyd Thomas during the morning hours as they conducted the count. 

"It's nice to see where the homeless people are and to see the services that can be offered to them, and to work with (the CAU representatives)," he said. "It's good we're all together."

Last year the Union County PIT counted 389 homeless people throughout Union County, 41 of whom were unsheltered, according to NJCounts, the annual statewide PIT effort. Of those who were unsheltered, 29 were in Elizabeth and four in Plainfield.

While this year's formal count has not yet been compiled, about 30 unsheltered homeless people were found and directed to shelters in those two cities, according to Karen Dinsmore, assistant director of the Union County Department of Human Services. Dinsmore said the county Code Blue program of moving homeless people off the street during extreme cold helps but she sees the issue of homelessness increasing in the county.

"We definitely see it growing because of the high cost of housing in Union County," she said. "You have both people we call chronic homeless, people who frequently live on the street, as well as people we call the working poor – they have a job but can't afford housing."

In the meantime, the county greatly appreciates the assistance of the social services agencies such as CAU who help with the annual PIT count, she said.

"We couldn't do what we do without the help of community-based organizations," she said.

About Community Access Unlimited

Community Access Unlimited (CAU), celebrating its 40th year in 2019, supports people with special needs in achieving real lives in the community. CAU gives a voice to adults and youth who traditionally have little power in society, assisting its members with housing, life skills, employment, money management, socialization, and civic activities. CAU also supports opportunities for advocacy through training in assertiveness, decision-making and civil rights. Currently serving more than 5,000 individuals and families, CAU continues to grow each year. For more information about CAU and its services, visit caunj.org or contact us at 908.354.3040, info@caunj.org or by mail at 80 West Grand Street, Elizabeth, NJ 07202.

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