Our Coalition had a very good day -- in some ways, an extraordinary day -- on our first day in the Ocean County Superior Court before its chief judge, the Hon. Vincent J. Grasso, A.J.S.C. Yesterday afternoon was scheduled to be the most routine of court days: just an initial scheduling conference, when the lawyers discuss mundane matters (scheduling and discovery), with only the litigators on the case in attendance. But this was no ordinary first day in court.
When Judge Grasso walked into his courtroom, he was visibly surprised to see more than just the lawyers on the case. As he scanned the normally empty courtroom, he saw: (1) at least half a dozen homeless men and women, who had come in from the woods to stand up for their rights; (2) members of our Coalition, including people from community organizations like STEPS, H.E.L.P and the Kiwanis Club, as well as local college students and other advocates for the homeless; and (3) representatives of the media, including a reporter from the Asbury Park press and a documentary filmmaker. The lawyers for the County and Lakewood were also clearly affected by the turnout, telling me they could not believe that the public had actually come to the initial conference in the case.
To start with, Judge Grasso agreed with my request that in light of the obvious public interest in this case, he hold the initial conference hearing on the record, in open court, to the greatest degree possible. He then allowed each of the attorneys -- Lakewood's attorney; my law firm (me and my colleague, Julie Werner); and the three lawyers in attendance for the County -- to give an overview of their positions. As we had hoped, Lakewood's lawyer did not press (at least not now) what had started this litigation: Lakewood's attempt to eject the people in the Lakewood camp. Thus, at least for this winter (and what remains of it), we seem to have achieved our first goal: stopping ejectment of homeless people with no other place to go.
The County, not surprisingly, took the position that it had already spent lots of money and already is doing all for the Lakewood camp that the law requires. I, on the other hand, did my best to start laying out some of the themes of our Coalition, such as that: (1) the "safety net" for the homeless is full of holes, with people -- including people in the courtroom -- falling through them and ending up outside on the ground; (2) the County has a legal obligation to give every homeless person an option besides living in the woods or on the street -- not just those who the County decides "qualify"; and (3) the County is wasting the taxpayer's money on "solutions" that don’t work, such as putting some homeless people up in hotel rooms some of the time for $75 or more a night -- far more than a sensible solution to homelessness would cost.
The proceedings, which normally would have lasted less than 30 minutes, went in and out of the courtroom for almost two hours. The highlights included Judge Grasso putting on the record that this litigation would not be limited to Lakewood, as the County had requested in the Judge's chambers, but would deal with issues of homelessness throughout the County, as our Coalition wanted. In addition, while in the Judge's chambers, we argued about the effect of the County's position: that a homeless person who does not qualify for any specific program offered by the County may have no choice but to live outside. The Judge seemed skeptical that this could be the law, and directed the County's lawyers to respond to our arguments under the New Jersey Constitution and the Poor Laws -- before the next conference on Monday, March 14th at 1:30 p.m.
In addition, Judge Grasso said that he wanted a sign of action that could be announced to the people in the courtroom, including the homeless, before the conference ended. Thus, at the Coalition's request, he appointed two "point people" -- for the homeless of the County, Mike McNeil of STEPS (whom I suggested because he is known to the judge and respected by him - and us) and for the County, Linda Murtagh of the Board of Social Services -- to discuss any homeless people that the Coalition (through Mike) identified as wanting a place to go. This could be a win-win situation for the homeless. If the County starts to help those whom it has not helped before, great. If not, Mike and his staff at STEPS will have a list of people whom the County failed to help, and this will strengthen our legal position. Most importantly, Judge Grasso is clearly a man of compassion and practicality. If the County will not work with us, Judge Grasso could make historic legal rulings about what New Jersey law, including the New Jersey Constitution requires. Indeed, this could even be certified (as we have asked) as perhaps the first class action for the homeless in New Jersey history.
None of this will be possible unless our Coalition continues to show Judge Grasso and the County, like it did yesterday, that we will stand by the homeless. For those who work or live in Ocean County, please join us, even if only briefly, on March 14 at 1:30 p.m. in Courtroom 1 in the old courthouse at the intersection of Washington St. & Hooper Ave. in Tom's River (map linked below):
Let's stay united with the homeless -- and please spread the word! If you know of anyone who wants to be added to this e-mail list for the Coalition for the Homeless of Ocean County (to get future updates), please let me know.
Jeffrey J. Wild Member of the Firm Lowenstein Sandler PC 65 Livingston Avenue Roseland, NJ 07068