Homelessness is a tragedy for far too many families and individuals. The negative physical, mental, emotional and educational effects of homelessness on children and adults – not to mention the overwhelming stress it puts on family life – have been well-documented. And homelessness is on the rise in Ocean County. On January 27, 2010, the date of the last Point in Time Count (PITC), there were 589 homeless adults and children in the County, an increase of 37% since 2007. (The 2011 Point in Time Count took place on January 26, 2011. Data from this count will not be available for several months.) The PITC uses a very restrictive definition of “homelessness:” it only counts unsheltered people, people staying in homeless shelters, and individuals and families placed temporarily by an agency in hotels or motels. Even under this definition, those responsible for the PITC concede that the actual number of homeless is anywhere from two to four times higher. Notably, the PITC does not count the numerous homeless individuals or families paying their own hotel/motel costs, nor does it include those temporarily sleeping on a friend’s couch or doubled-up with family or friends.
Among the primary causes of homelessness in Ocean County are:
· Unemployment, low wages and unaffordable housing costs.
o The unemployment rate in Ocean County is approximately 10%.
o In 2009, half of all private sector workers in OC made $18.45 an hour or less ($38, 430 annually). One quarter of all workers made less than $11.70 an hour ($24, 330 per year.) Wages have continued to stagnate of fall for many middle and lower-income workers.
o The 2011 federal Fair Market Rent for an efficiency apartment in OC is $949 per month, for a one-bedroom unit it is $1097, and for a two-bedroom apartment it is $1339.
o In order to be able to afford to pay the rent and meet all its other basic expenses, a family renting a two-bedroom apartment needs an income in excess of $50,000 per year (about $24 an hour.) A single person in an efficiency unit would require about $30,000 to pay the rent and make ends meet. A comparison of wages to rent clearly shows that many people are truly one paycheck or one major unexpected expense from homelessness.
· The severe shortage of subsidized housing. There is a severe shortage of subsidized housing in Ocean County, especially in relation to the need generated by low wages and high rents. Only 3 out of 10 households who qualify for housing assistance can obtain it due to inadequate funding levels. For example, there are thousands of households in OC on waiting lists for federal Housing Choice Vouchers, which help lower-income people pay their rent. All of these waiting lists are closed. Last resort housing – rooming homes, boarding homes and other single room occupancy and efficiency units – is in particularly short supply. Between 2000 and 2009, OC lost 38% of its licensed rooming/boarding houses (from 45 to 28), and many more were lost in the previous decades.
· Evictions and foreclosures. Households facing eviction or foreclosure are clearly at risk of homelessness. (In OC alone, more than 5,000 eviction actions were filed between 7/1/09 and 6/30/10, and another 2,500 have been filed since the latter date.) Many lower-wage workers and others are just barely able to afford their rent or mortgage payments, even in good times. Layoffs, downsizing, loss of full-time earnings, unexpected illnesses (especially if un- or under-insured), major car or home repairs, and other problems can be catastrophic for these households, as well as for the thousands of formerly middle class families deeply affected by the economic downturn.
· Gaps in the “safety net.” Only three categories of households are entitled to a meaningful period of state and federally funded emergency shelter assistance (EA). The three categories are families with children eligible to receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF); adults without children eligible for General Assistance (GA); and disabled people or seniors receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Hundreds of TANF, GA and SSI households throughout OC are able to avoid homelessness, or obtain shelter, because the EA provided to them through the Board of Social Services assists them with such things as several months of back rent payments, temporary placement in a hotel or motel, or temporary rental assistance for a limited period of time.
All other homeless or imminently-homeless households are not entitled to emergency assistance. Household not entitled include lower-wage workers, people receiving Social Security Disability or retirement benefits, those on unemployment, and others struggling to keep a roof over their heads.
Example 1: The monthly TANF grant for a family of 3 is $424, plus Food Stamps and Medicaid. (In comparison, the monthly GA grant is $140; it is $210 for a person considered disabled.) A mother with 2 children applying for TANF and earning $250 per week, or receiving $400 every other week in unemployment benefits, does not qualify because she makes too much.
Example 2: A homeless person receiving the SSI maximum of $705 is entitled to EA. A homeless individual receiving $800 in Social Security Disability benefits is not.
Those not entitled to EA compete for a limited amount of generally short-term help, often a week or a month or two. Others are referred to charitable groups. Many are unable to obtain any help at all.
A program capable of providing somewhat greater assistance to those households unable to get EA is the federal Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP), administered in OC by United Way. (This program, initiated with a fixed amount of federal stimulus dollars, is not permanently funded.) From October 19, 2009 through October, 2010, more than 300 homeless or at risk families with children, and 50 similarly at risk individuals, were screened by the Board of Social Services and referred to HPRP because they were not eligible for or receiving TANF, GA or SSI. HPRP was able to help 69 families and 2 individuals avoid homelessness or find housing after they were homeless. Strict eligibility and assistance criteria prevented it from assisting any more of those in need. (Referrals to HPRP are only a small portion of the households that the Board cannot assist. Only those households that the screeners think might be able to meet the strict HPRP guidelines are referred to that program.)
· Poor credit (the almost inevitable result of inadequate income) criminal background checks that take no account of rehabilitation, discrimination against people of color or the disabled, and other issues only add to the difficulties experienced by many people seeking apartments.
· One point bears repetition and emphasis. Emergency and transitional housing, however critical, are by definition temporary. Those families and individuals unable to find and keep safe, decent, permanent housing that is affordable for the long term are at great risk of becoming homeless again.