Sunday, November 20, 2011

Asbury Park Press editorial, Nov. 18, 2011

Time to tackle homelessness
For the past several years, the Ocean County Freeholders’ response to the homelessness problem has been to wish that it would go away.  It won’t.  On Tuesday night, about 200 people gathered in Lakewood town square after they walked with lanterns for a mile from Tent City to raise awareness of the plight of the homeless and call on officials once again to provide them a shelter in Ocean County.
The peaceful demonstration was one more chapter in the years-old story of the Ocean County freeholders’ unwillingness to provide shelter for the homeless in their midst.  The failure is found most conspicuously in Tent City in Lakewood, where dozens of people have taken up “residence.”
Lakewood filed a lawsuit last year to evict Tent City residents from township-owned land in the woods off Cedar Bridge Avenue.  Eventually, Lakewood agreed to allow the tentdwellers to stay on a temporary basis.  But the lawsuit, which drew a countersuit from an attorney representing Tent City residents, continues, with a hearing set for Dec. 2.
The problem in Ocean County, however, transcends Tent City.  According to Roseland attorney and activist Jeffrey J. Wild, in a 32-month period, the county Board of Social Services turned down 3,774 applications for assistance.  Wild argues the county has failed to spend an annual $20 million budgeted to care for the homeless in either an efficient or humane manner.
The Board of Freeholders may be right in claiming that government has no constitutional or other legal obligation to provide such a shelter.  It may have decided that the moral issue of homelessness is not in its purview.  But the issue may soon begin to hit Ocean County hard in the pocketbook.  It shouldn’t come to that.
Last month, the Atlantic City Rescue Mission, a nonprofit Christian social service ministry that operated a shelter in Atlantic City, filed a lawsuit against Ocean County seeking reimbursement for about $2 million in costs since 2005 associated with providing emergency shelter for homeless people who previously resided in Ocean County.
Homelessness has been a longstanding problem in Ocean County.  As we have argued before, the freeholders should turn the tent community into a sanctioned temporary shelter until a permanent  county-funded, privately operated shelter can be built.
Some of the homeless in Ocean County are those with substance abuse problems and/or mental illness who have been reluctant to leave Tent City.  But many are those who have fallen on bad luck and hard times.  All of them need some help.  The county should do the right thing instead of continuing its vain attempt to defend hard-heartedness.

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