Plight of New Jersey's homeless worsens following Hurricane Sandy
NEPTUNE — During the course of a year, about 29,000 men, women and children find themselves homeless in New Jersey, according to housing officials.
In just a few dark hours last month, Hurricane Sandy swept countless others from their homes to the makeshift shelters and vacant hotel rooms across Monmouth and Ocean counties.
Now, as many of those residents begin to rebuild their lives, the stopgaps are going away, leaving those who were struggling before the storm with uncertainty about their long-term housing while agencies scramble to find new options. But slim options got slimmer when Sandy hit, choking limited resources for the existing homeless and complicating efforts to find them housing as the cold starts biting and sinks its teeth in for the winter.
“Do we anticipate there will be new homeless? Yes. How long? We don’t know,” Alison Ryan-Recca, program director for the Corporation for Supportive Housing, told the Asbury Park Press of Neptune. The group provides funding and technical assistance to agencies that help the homeless, and Ryan-Recca said “this is not something we prepared for.”
Many of the temporary shelters, including the massive Camp Freedom at Monmouth Park racetrack in Oceanport, had closed their doors by Thanksgiving. Those who are left behind are the ones who were either homeless before Oct. 29, when Sandy hit, or on the cusp of homelessness, augmenting a statewide problem that has since come into focus here on the battered Jersey Shore — especially Ocean County, officials said.
In Seaside Heights, for example, hotels reserved for winter rentals for the homeless were rendered uninhabitable, said Linda Gyimoty, executive director of the United Way of Ocean County. Gyimoty and other heads of local and state agencies met last week to begin long-term planning, but ideas — such as having real estate agents help find temporary rentals or using senior villages for housing — are preliminary and may not stick.
“We had a homeless issue prior to this. Even though we had some resources in place, there were still gaps existing,” Gyimoty said. “Now we have hundreds, if not thousands, of people displaced.”
It is difficult to estimate how many people were left homeless by the storm because many people are in a holding pattern — waiting to return to their homes or in state- or county-supported shelters, Nicole Brossoie, spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services, said in an email. Prior to the storm, there were about 29,000 homeless in New Jersey, said Tonya R. Bryan, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness.
Though thousands of people were evacuated from their homes and would ultimately lose them, the majority are considered in better shape in the long run than others, Recca-Ryan said.
“If you lost your home at the Jersey Shore, most people don’t end up in the shelters. They have families, they have friends. Those who are the most vulnerable are the ones who do end up at the shelter. Those are the people who we have to worry about,” Recca-Ryan said. “They may have been holding on by a thread and now they lost their ability to get to their job, they lost their homes, their credit may have been damaged.”
She added: “Now that New Jersey has all these newly homeless, the long-term homeless are now competing for housing.”
The Disaster Housing Task Force, led by the Department of Community Affairs, has identified thousands of rentals in the state for individuals and families displaced by Sandy, spokeswoman Lisa Ryan said in a statement. The task force is also evaluating state and federally owned properties as a housing resource, she said.
For those who were homeless before the storm, Ryan said the federal Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program offers permanent housing, and the department has grant agreements with several agencies to administer the program.
Many people have been transferred from the government-run shelters to those provided by local churches or, in some cases, ones located in Burlington County, Gyimoty said, while leadership plots a course for the long term.
“We need plans that are more flexible on the ground at this point,” she said.
The Ocean County Board of Social Services said in a statement on Wednesday that its staff was working at state-run shelters with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to identify existing clients and those who might be eligible for benefits as a result of the storm.
Standing beside her nook of belongings in front of a row of wagering booths, Arabia Anderson, 22, had no assurances of where she might go once the Monmouth Park shelter closed. Her life had been peripatetic since the end of summer.
Anderson’s boyfriend, Chad Friday, had recently been laid off from his job in Asbury Park because of the off-season lull in business, she said. The couple was then unable to cover their rent in Asbury Park, so, along with their 18-month-old daughter, Paris, assumed a nomadic lifestyle.
They stayed with friends and sank their last $300 into a week’s stay at the Crystal Inn on Route 66 in Neptune. When Sandy hit they huddled with family in Neptune, but were back on their own once the storm passed, she said. They found respite in the green-tiled grandstand of Monmouth Park, where roughly 300 evacuees and displaced people stayed for close to three weeks. With no car, Anderson was unable to get to her job at McDonald’s in Neptune, she said.
As the camp’s refugees headed back into surrounding communities to be with family or to stay in short-term housing, the family stayed — and stayed and stayed — until the camp’s sheltering operation shut down midweek.
“I’m homeless,” she said. “The (police) sergeant told me not to be nervous. A few people here said they’re not just going to kick us out.”
Dan Bedell, a Canadian Red Cross worker on loan to the Camp Freedom operation, said that on Tuesday night there were 31 people left at the shelter and through “various state and other agencies involved” they had found transitional accommodations, including Arabia Anderson.
An Associated Press Member Exchange report.