STAFFORD TOWNSHIP — More than 60 percent of state funding spent on assistance for homeowners to resettle in their homes after Hurricane Sandy has gone to Ocean County, data shows.
The state has spent $23 million on the Sandy Housing Rental Assistance Program, or SHRAP, which helps New Jersey residents to pay their bills and housing expenses, with nearly $14 million going to 5,137 Ocean County residents, said Natasha Johnson, deputy director of the Division of Family Development in the state Department of Human Services.
That’s more than anywhere else in the state. It's nearly double the number of residents seeking help in neighboring Monmouth County, and six times as many people who’ve applied for assistance in Atlantic County.
Not surprisingly, the large number applicants has meant long waits and frustration for Ocean County residents who are still struggling 18 months after the storm
What’s worse: Officials say they are expecting to see another 5,000 people in Ocean County seek SHRAP assistance in the next year.
“We know that 55,000 were impacted by Hurricane Sandy in Ocean County and when Sandy hit, 60 percent of the damage was in Ocean County.” said Ted Gooding, chief executive officer of O.C.E.A.N. Inc., which is administering the SHRAP program in Ocean County.
“We also believe that as many as 25,000 people are still displaced,” Gooding said.
The state initially thought opening one SHRAP service center in Ocean County was sufficient and then quickly realized that wasn’t going to be enough, Johnson said.
The SHRAP service center that has seen the most volume is in Stafford Township at the Ocean County Southern Service Center on Route 9, Johnson said.
Between two SHRAP locations in Stafford and Brick townships, more than 3,000 people have passed through during the past six months, Gooding said.
Due to the demand and applicant volume, Hurricane Sandy victims in Ocean County are now scheduling appointments at the facilities months in advance to apply for assistance, she said.
Johnson said the state is working to add staffing at the locations and has extended service hours.
“I am very proud of my staff, and they are tolerating this better than anyone could have imagined. We meet on a regular basis to keep morale up. They are all doing their due diligence to make sure that every client that comes in is treated the same way,” Gooding said.
Lynn Hansen’s Beach Drive home in Little Egg Harbor Township was one of many that suffered damage during the storm and almost two years later she said she feels like it’s just weeks after Hurricane Sandy.
Hansen said during a recent visit to the SHRAP facility at the Ocean County Southern Service Center in Stafford Township she waited nine hours to drop off a gas bill that she needed help paying.
Hansen has been receiving SHRAP assistance to pay for her mortgage, but now because of delays in the program her mortgage is two months late, she said.
Hansen has lived in the Mystic Island section of Little Egg Harbor for 11 years, and her home was repaired so her family could move back after the storm, but now they may we have to move out again to elevate the home.
Problems with SHRAP have made things worse, she said.
“And they have also been late paying my electric bill and it was going to be shut off. I had to pay the electric company $141 to keep my electricity on and now because I paid it, I will never get the money back,” Hansen said.
“It’s ridiculous and abusive. There is no oversight. The program is being mismanaged, and it’s insulting to those of us who are trying to survive this. If they’re going to help us they need to help us,” she said.
DHS spokeswoman Nicole Brossoie and Ocean County Administrator Carl Block said this week that they have heard complaints about delays and bills being paid late at the SHRAP center in Stafford Township.
Block said when the facility opened in October in Stafford Township, it was a “mob scene” and security had to be sent to the county-owned property.
The county has recently requested more funding for additional staffing a
“We had no expectation that that volume was going to fall on us,” Block said.
On Wednesday afternoon at the Stafford Township SHRAP service center, Little Egg Harbor Township resident Sandra Cosenza said she is thankful the assistance is there, but the process is grueling.
Cosenza said her first appointment took several hours, and it took two months to get that appointment.
“You have to come every time you need something paid. They don’t answer the phones. At eight in the morning, people start lining up outside, and if you work it’s hard because if you have to come sometimes you’re here all day and have to take the day off,” she said.
The SHRAP program, administered through the state Department of Human Services, helps residents with expenses for housing, utility payments, and replacing essentials, such as furniture and appliances. The program also provides rental and mortgage assistance.
The expense must be a direct result of Hurricane Sandy to be eligible for the program.