MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — For Michael Hale and others gathered at Tuesday’s Cape May County freeholder meeting, the issue of homelessness is personal.
Hale lives in his car.
He and his fiancee, Dana Gilroy, are saving up for a room, but it’s tough earning enough money. The occasional citation from police for sleeping in the car makes money even tighter.
On Tuesday, he and several other homeless people and their advocates expressed concerns about changes to the local Code Blue system, aimed at keeping people safe and warm on the coldest winter nights.
Code Blue is activated when temperatures drop to 25 degrees, or to 32 if there is rain, sleet or snow. At that point, the county shelters people in local motels through a voucher program.
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Come Jan. 1, the vouchers will continue to be available for families, but individuals will no longer be eligible.
According to Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton, that ruling came from the state.
Tom Hester, a spokesman for the state Department of Human Services, said there has been no change in the state’s approach in the use of funding through Social Services for the Homeless and that his department would talk with Cape May County officials “to clarify any concerns.”
County officials have been working with municipalities to set up warming centers for individuals and plan to help fund those efforts where there are the largest concentrations of homeless people.
He said the county plans to put $65,000 toward the efforts, with $20,000 each going to Lower Township and the Wildwoods, and $25,000 going to Middle Township.
“The municipalities have the responsibility for Code Blue. What the county does is make the announcement,” Thornton said. “We’ve even supplemented them with our money, so that nobody would be cold.”
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Hugh Blaire, of West Cape May, the organizer of a group called A Voice for the Homeless, asked how the change will be communicated to those who most need the services.
“We think it was a mistake to divest the county of this responsibility. We are still holding the county responsible,” she said.
“We’re not divesting our responsibly of helping the homeless people. That’s number one,” said Freeholder Jeffrey Pierson. “Nothing has changed except that the municipalities are going to do this in locations that they find within their communities.”
Gilroy said she is homeless and volunteers with The Branches outreach center in Rio Grande. She said she attended the meeting to speak on behalf of people who are not often heard.
“They need a voice, because it’s obvious that Cape May County is denying that we have a homeless problem. We have a very big population of homeless.”
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“We’ve never denied that we have a homeless problem,” Thornton said.
Thornton drew a distinction between the Code Blue issue and homelessness, saying the county is working with a consultant on the best way to use a trust fund built up over the past two years, amounting to about $140,000.
“That’s not a lot of money for the homeless. We have to put together an advisory board that will help us figure out how to dispense those funds properly throughout the county,” he said.
A meeting is planned in February to decide the best route, he said. “It’s not instantaneous. We’re not forgetting you.”
Thornton added that a nonprofit that wanted to launch a homeless shelter locally would have the county’s full support.
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Sam Kelly, of Middle Township, who has advocated for homeless issues at the local and county levels, wants the county to continue the voucher program for individuals until the municipalities get their own systems in place. Otherwise, he said, there could be dire consequences.
Kelly said homeless people face hostility from community members, which he and others said includes tents being slashed and belongings destroyed in the encampments in wooded areas of the county.
Denise South, of Lower Township, director of Cape Hope, said the organization has been actively working on the issue, including an agreement to work with Middle Township, which plans to set up a warming center at Cape Community Church on Route 9.
She said a training session for potential volunteers is planned for 5 p.m. Monday at the church.