OCEAN COUNTY – Dozens of people who work or volunteer to help the county’s unhoused population met at St. Luke’s church in Toms River to discuss shortcomings in the system and work together to find solutions.
It started with talks by Gemma MacCarrick Brennan, President of St. Vincent de Paul Society at St. Luke’s, and Pastor Sue Jones of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, who also heads up the Toms River Housing and Homeless Coalition. Despite its name, the outreach is throughout the county.
Brennan is a retired principal. She shared stories about meeting new families to the school and learning just how little they have.
“If you listen to anyone’s stories about being homeless, it’s not any one thing,” she said, explaining how there is usually a perfect storm of circumstances. A lot of it has to do with not having a safety net that others have.
“We have the resources and they don’t. And we know about the resources and they don’t,” she said.
“Everyone has a picture in their mind of what a homeless person looks like, but the majority of people who are homeless are invisible,” Jones said.
Right now, the Coalition operates a Housing Resource Center at 200 Corporate Circle (off Route 37) in Toms River. It functions as a referral center that directs clients toward whatever they need.
The purpose of meetings like the one at St. Luke’s is to grow a network of like-minded individuals who can create that safety net. For example, a case worker is helping a family fleeing domestic violence, and it turns out the mother is a veteran. The case worker can make a call to someone who deals with veterans issues every day and who might be more knowledgeable about the programs available to veterans than the case worker.
No single organization can serve all the needs of the population, Jones said. The personnel know “These are the things I’m good at and these are the things I’m not.” So these connections fill in the blanks to satisfy the needs of the whole person.
They are also taking data on what brought the individual to need services in the first place. The goal here would be to address the root cause of homelessness so that people don’t wind up in that situation to begin with.
Part of the meeting was identifying problems, such as the shortage of funding, staffing, and locations. Some of the problems are more complex, such as placing homeless people in motels that are known to be unsafe.
People suggested having communication with schools so that teachers and counselors know how to refer a student’s family for services. They talked about how many government programs require people to fill out forms online when a lot of the people in need don’t have access to a computer.
The last count-in-place recorded 419 homeless, Jones said, but that doesn’t count those who are couch-surfing.
Ocean County has several animal shelters, but it’s the only county in New Jersey without a human shelter, some of the speakers said, as the county leaders have repeatedly said they don’t want to operate one.
The County Commissioners have also shut down the idea of a Homelessness Trust Fund, which would be a fee of $5 for every real estate transaction.
Ben Giovine, district director for Congressman Andy Kim (D-3rd) said that Burlington County has success with this.
Jones said that Toms River has been great in opening the Riverwood Park building as an overnight shelter during the coldest nights. However, longer-term solutions are being taken off the map. They used to be able to put people up in motels in Seaside during the winter, but a lot of those motels are being torn down for private homes.
The discussion already yielded some results. As someone brought up the lack of places to house homeless, someone else mentioned a church in Lakewood that might have space for 20 beds. That’s only a small solution, but the public is more accepting of several small shelters rather than one large one.
Pastor Steve Brigham, who is known for taking care of homeless camping in the woods, said he knew of a church for sale.
A lot of the night worked like that. One person would mention something, and another would add to it. If three different organizations are holding coat drives, would it be better to just have one? If several groups share a building, would it be affordable?
There’s no need to reinvent the wheel, they were told. If another organization can do something yours can’t, then reach out to them instead of trying to build something up from the ground. As people share what works and what doesn’t, a list of best practices can emerge.
After the main program, people broke off into small groups to talk to each other, network, and come up with plans.
The Toms River homeless Coalition is looking for volunteers and other organizations that offer services. If you wish to help – or if you need help yourself – call 848-223-7284 or visit trhomelessnesscoalition.org and Facebook.com/TRHHC