Has Bergen County, NJ Ended Homelessness? It is complicated

By Roshan Abraham, Next city

January 14, 2022

On Jan. 26, volunteers who work in Bergen County, New Jersey’s homeless services area, will fan out across the county to count the number of homeless people for the county’s annual tally. The tally is a requirement of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that helps decide how money is distributed to states.

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Statewide expects COVID-19 to present issues with annual tally; there will be fewer volunteers than in pre-pandemic years, people who are not sheltered may be reluctant to speak in person for fear of transmission, some may be in hospital rooms rather than shelters.

But despite the presence of COVID-19, Bergen County officials are nonetheless hopeful that this year, as in the previous five years, the county will have reached “functional zero” for chronic homelessness and veteran homelessness. . Functional Zero is a measure created by the nonprofit Community Solutions that later influenced the federal government’s own definition. Far from meaning the county is homeless, the formula essentially ensures the capacity exists to house everyone in a priority category relatively quickly. Bergen is one of only three jurisdictions to have met these criteria for chronic homelessness (defined by HUD as long-term homelessness caused by disability) and veteran homelessness, according to Community Solutions, the non-profit organization that has partnered with the localities to provide support as they achieve these goals.

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Julia Orlando, director of the Bergen County Housing, Health and Human Services Center coordinating the county’s efforts, says the county has met those benchmarks even throughout the pandemic. “Even at the height of the pandemic, we were meeting every two weeks,” she says.

As with the 97 other jurisdictions that have partnered with Community Solutions to achieve this goal, the first step was to create a detailed list of all people experiencing homelessness within the vulnerable communities in question. Called a “list by name” by Community Solutions, it also includes a history of homelessness, health issues and other needs. People are given scores to prioritize the support they will need – people with higher scores can be sorted into permanent supportive housing, while someone with a lower score “just needs a little help to get back on your feet,” says Orlando.

Orlando says it also helps the county personalize its approach. “It has to do with the type of services they want,” she says. Someone with age-related disabilities would be connected to senior services, for example, and a veteran can be connected to the county’s Veterans Support Network. “By connecting people to their interests, their needs, their communities, that’s what keeps people housed,” Orlando says.

The county has also consolidated all of its social and homeless services into one agency and houses that agency in one building. The Bergen County Housing, Health and Human Services Center is a unique 27,000 square foot building that provides meals, shelter, access to medical appointments and case management, which Orlando and others in the county call it a “one-stop shop.”

“I think what they do effectively is reduce a problem to manageable proportions,” says Diane Riley, executive director of the Supportive Housing Association of New Jersey. “They tried to make it as easy as possible for [unhoused] people to talk to a group of people and get them to do the legwork.”

The county entered Community Solution’s Built For Zero program in 2015, and with the nonprofit’s technical support and “coaching” to grow its list of names, it only achieved homelessness. “zero functional” chronicle only six months later, in February 2016, and zero functional homeless veteran in 2017.

It’s a remarkably short timeline, but Orlando says the county basically had all the resources it needed before entering Built For Zero, it simply had no centralized, coordinated way to connect people to those resources.

It’s also important to contextualize what “functional zero” and “chronic homelessness” mean in the context of HUD as well as Community Solutions’ Built For Zero program. As Next City has written, it can be confusing for cities to claim they have reached these milestones when homelessness is still widespread.

Data from Bergen County’s annual count shows that the total number of homeless people on the day the PIT count takes place has remained more or less stable, even as homeless and chronically homeless veterans have been reduced to “zero functional “. In 2019, the number was 271; in 2020 there were 352 people counted and in 2021 there were 279 in the count. However, HUD expects all point counts for 2021 to likely be low estimates given the difficulty of doing point counts during the pandemic, according to a spokesperson for Monarch Housing Associates, the entity coordinating the New Jersey point counts. .

Since the county and the federal government require a person to have a disabling condition to be considered “chronically homeless”, the use of this term can also evade the fact that people are still homeless in the long term. in Bergen County. According to the January 26, 2021 count, 279 people in the county were homeless at the time of the count. Of those people, 4 were “chronically homeless” by HUD’s definition, which included 2 people in a shelter and 2 living outside.

But that doesn’t describe the persistence of long-term homelessness: There were 42 people in Bergen County’s 2021 PIT count who had been homeless for more than a year, 13 of whom had been homeless for more than 3 years. . (Overall, about 50% of those identified in the tally had a disabling condition.) Another 119 people had been homeless for more than three months but less than a year.

Tragically, at this time last year, a reporter following the Bergen County Director of Veterans Services discovered the body of a homeless person who had frozen to death the previous day.

Some homeless-serving nonprofits like the National Coalition for the Homeless have criticized the “functional zero” approach on the grounds that it focuses on rehousing rather than the issues that lead to homelessness. -shelter. A community could theoretically experience a spike in homelessness, but, provided most of that homelessness is relatively brief, it could still reach functional zero. “In no other area of ​​life do we deal with a crisis by redefining it and fixating on homeostasis as the new reality,” wrote Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness. in a 2015 white paper.

For its part, Community Solutions has taken the approach that organizing, cataloging and consolidating data and metrics – their core approach – will always be a crucial part of reducing homelessness.

“The number may be low, but you will have people on this list who have been homeless for over a year,” says Julia Parshall, from Community Solutions. “That doesn’t mean nobody ever experiences roaming,” Parshall says, “but for a system that works that way, you basically have to house most people within 30 days.”

Parshall says the organization aims to end homelessness and that jurisdictions can go beyond the “functional zero” metric individually. “The goal is to end all homelessness,” Parshall said. She says Bergen County has exceeded the functional zero requirement at times. “They set the highest goal…we see communities setting their own goals,” she says.

Orlando believes the data-driven approach allows the county to better organize its resources for the people who need them most. “The measure is to ensure that the most vulnerable people in our communities will be prioritized,” she says.

The Community Solutions partnership focuses on data, not resources, which may not be enough for communities that have inadequate social services or a lack of affordable housing. But Parshall says the focus on data can help jurisdictions defend resources.

“That doesn’t mean there aren’t additional resource needs,” she says, but with data “you can make a stronger, more credible claim.”

Available accommodation is always a problem. “It’s tough in Bergen County because there’s not a lot of land available,” says Riley of the Supportive Housing Association. Community members have also pushed back on affordable housing projects, although this has eased in recent years following the New Jersey Supreme Court’s 2017 ruling that the state must allow affordable housing development, at the following a lawsuit filed by the non-profit Fair Share Housing Center.

Bergen County plans to tackle youth homelessness next, another vulnerable category that HUD has prioritized. But there are communities facing short-term homelessness and long-term homelessness that aren’t included in HUD’s priority communities, a list created under the Obama administration that includes chronic homelessness, veterans, youth and families. For example, Bergen’s tally in 2021 included 26 people fleeing domestic violence, all of whom had been homeless for less than a year.

And it’s hard to get an accurate picture of how many people are homeless during the spread of the highly contagious variant of Omicron. According to a spokesperson for Monarch Housing Associates, HUD has asked localities not to make comparisons to 2021 or 2020 data because year-over-year trends will be skewed by the pandemic.

Diane Riley, executive director of the Supportive Housing Network of New Jersey, says that for communities that don’t have adequate resources to quickly house vulnerable populations, it still makes sense to work on organizing data, the work that Bergen has done through Built For Zero. “You have to look at what you can do,” Riley says. Otherwise, she says, “you wouldn’t do anything, it only leads to stagnation and no progress.”

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