MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — Communities can end homelessness, Daniel McDonald told about 100 people gathered Wednesday night at the Rio Grande fire hall.

It’s not easy, he said, but it’s cheaper than the alternative.

McDonald, the homeless liaison officer for the Tampa Police Department, was invited to make a presentation after Middle Township police Chief Chris Leusner heard him speak at an event in Florida. Cape Assist hosted the forum.

Speaking for close to two hours, he said homelessness costs far more than housing people, and advocated a multitiered approach to the problem, along with the appointment of a single person to coordinate and lead efforts.

“Are you ready to embrace change?” he asked the crowd of officials and the public. “If you are, then good. If you’re here for bingo afterward, then you can all leave now.”

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, New Jersey had 8,536 homeless people on a given night in 2018, for a rate of 9.5 homeless per 10,000 population. The combined region of Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester and Camden counties recorded 938 homeless. Atlantic County recorded 422.

McDonald was critical of the most common approach to addressing homelessness, which includes an emergency shelter, with people moving from there into temporary housing and then on to permanent housing. That process can take years, he said, and often includes unreasonable or impractical obstacles.

He advocated a “housing first” model, saying issues of addiction, mental health problems and chronic illness can be better addressed if someone has a safe and stable place to live. In his model, communities work to prevent homelessness in five steps:

Diversion and prevention, which can include something as simple as helping patch up a family argument that put someone out on the street in the first place

Outreach and coordinated entry. In his instance, McDonald helps clients access available programs and evaluates their immediate needs

Emergency shelter, which he said should have few barriers to access

Rapid rehousing, which can include short-term rental assistance

Permanent supportive housing, which should include wraparound services

Of these, McDonald said the emergency shelter element was the least important.

McDonald described working with individuals to get them out of tent cities and under a roof. In some cases, he described working with the same person for years, trying again and again to get him into a supportive program.

Several speakers welcomed McDonald’s message, including those who represent advocacy and aid organizations. A few expressed skepticism.

“I’m very concerned, because much of what you said tonight was anti-shelter,” said Sam Kelly, a township resident who has advocated for a local homeless shelter. “What is your transition process from homelessness to housing?”

“Ninety percent of the time, we skip the transition process and go straight from the streets to housing,” McDonald said. If a shelter works in the community, fine, he said, but most communities do not do shelters well, especially if people spend years in a shelter with no clear path to permanent housing.

McDonald also said communities should make fewer arrests. He said a bank robber must be sent to prison for the safety of the public, but arrests for sleeping in public, panhandling and other minor crimes do nothing to address the problem, citing one man who spent about 10 years in jail over minor offenses, 60 to 90 days at a time, costing taxpayers far more than getting him into supported housing.

Cape May County Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton said the presentation gave him a lot to consider, but he made no specific commitment on county policy immediately after the meeting.

It is possible to address the issue if the community decides to make it a priority, McDonald said.

“We know how to do this. There’s no mystery to this. It isn’t rocket science,” he said.

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