VILLAS – Three issues kept coming up at a May 31 panel presentation on homelessness: Mental health, addiction, and lack of housing.
Sponsored by the Knights of Columbus of Cape May County, the panel included representatives from nonprofits, county government and state Assemblyman Antwan McClellan (R-1st).
McClellan told the audience he had been meeting with Middle Township police and township and county officials to connect with Cumberland County, where there are homeless shelters.
“I thought, how can we get (the homeless) to Cumberland County,” McClellan said.
McClellan said some of the homeless don’t want help, but he was trying to make sure they “get fed and get the help they need.”
County resident Marilyn Kobik objected to talk of transporting Cape May County’s homeless to Cumberland County, and suggested why some might refuse help.
“They do not want you to take them to Cumberland County. They have ties here, even if they are addicted or have mental health issues,” she said. “Thank you for your concern, but the name of the game isn’t to take Cape May County’s homeless and send them to Cumberland County.”
Kobik said breaking the bonds the homeless have might put them over the edge.
“My goal is to find them housing,” McClellan said.
Maria Elena Hallion, executive director of The Branches Outreach, said she is still learning about the homeless population in Cape May County. The Branches, she said, provides food to the homeless five days a week and delivers food to people residing in motels in Rio Grande and to sober living houses.
Sandra Lockhart, operations director for The Branches Outreach, described the situation they are seeing with the homeless these days.
“It’s getting worse and worse,” she said.
Lockhart described a man showing up at The Branches Outreach Center, in Rio Grande, the day prior, pushing a shopping cart with all his belongings piled inside.
“I think we all agree there are three major issues,” she said, listing mental health, addiction, and the lack of affordable housing.
Those issues were restated by others, such as Denise Venturini-South, president and chief executive officer of Cape Hope, and Johnnie Walker, chairman of the Citizens/Veterans Advisory Council (CVAC).
Walker added transportation needs as another big issue for the homeless and included mental health with medical needs. He also listed housing as one of the top three issues.
Venturini-South cited unaffordable rents as part of the cause of housing insecurity or homelessness.
“A two-bedroom market rate unit is $1,368 per month, and the median home price is about $400,000,” she said.
Donna Groome, who heads the Cape May County Department of Human Services, said the picture is actually worse – the market rate rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Cape May County is over $1,500.
Venturini-South said the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) referred to homelessness as a deadly crisis.
USICH Executive Director Jeff Olivet spoke at the National Health Care for the Homeless Conference and Policy Symposium, May 16, and said, “One thing we know from decades of HCH (Health Care for the Homeless) work is that homelessness is deadly.”
Venturini-South said the homeless live with treatable diseases, live out in severe weather, and live with violence. She said, in 2022, there were 600,000 homeless people nationwide and over 9,000 in New Jersey.
She said Cape Hope, which is staffed by volunteers only, spent $200,000 to shelter the homeless in 2022, and has spent $8,000 to date in 2023, with all the funds coming from local donors.
Walker said the phone call that led to the creation of CVAC was about a veteran who had lived with a woman for 40 years and when she died, her children told the veteran he had two weeks to move out. Ten years later, he created CVAC.
The organization is committed to getting a veteran into shelter within 24 to 48 hours. Walker also oversees 18,000 disabled veterans through his role with the Disabled American Veterans (DAV). He said there are only 200 beds for homeless veterans in the entire State of New Jersey, and 18,000 veterans in the DAV alone.
“Two-hundred beds will never cut it,” he said.
While he works constantly to get homeless veterans sheltered, Walker also commented on an ordinance introduced in Middle Township, where most of the county’s homeless tend to congregate due to the services offered.
The ordinance would prohibit living in tents or under makeshift shelters. Those who violate the ordinance would be charged with a misdemeanor, making them subject to a fine of up to $2,000 and a penalty of up to 90 days in jail.
“I don’t get it,” Walker said. “They don’t want them on the streets, they don’t want them in the neighborhoods, they don’t want them in the woods – where should they go?”
Groome said Cape May County Social Services works with several programs to help those who are homeless or struggling. She said her department has five divisions, which offer hundreds of services.
Most or all applicants will have to qualify for the programs and participate in program requirements, such as being a Cape May County resident, and participating in the WorkFirst NJ program.
The county has an emergency assistance program for temporary housing. Assistance is available for up to 12 months in the applicant’s lifetime.
There are currently 35 people getting temporary housing through the county, all in motels in the Rio Grande area.
There are also four housing units available under the county’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund and three are full. The housing trust fund receives its funding from a $5 fee attached to all real estate transfers, with $3 going into the fund for housing and $2 into a fund for Code Blue warming centers.
The warming centers only operate when the temperature is expected to dip below 32 degrees Fahrenheit and is declared by the Cape May County Office of Emergency Management.
In the meantime, help with vital supplies and services is available through agencies such as The Branches Outreach, Cape Hope, CVAC, and the Lazarus House.
Kathy Gallagher, of Lazarus House, referred to the food pantry as “a grocery store without a cash register.” Lazarus House serves between 14,000 and 16,000 people per year with donated food from sources that include the Acme Markets and Wawa.
“We have the most generous community,” Gallagher said.
Many local organizations depend on the generosity of others. Venturini-South said Cape Hope is attempting to build a Community Care Center and affordable housing.
The Community Care Center, she said, is not a shelter, but a resource center where various agencies could cooperate to provide service for the homeless.
Hallion said The Branches Outreach was currently trying to establish close ties with other agencies.
Contact the author, Christopher South, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 609-886-8600, ext. 128.
ED. NOTE: The author is the husband of Denise Venturini-South, who is quoted in this story.
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