Counting Union County's Homeless

Suburban News / NJ.com — Thursday, February 5, 2009

By Union County Feature Services

He sat on the brown steel folding chair getting a haircut, a trim that held with it the hope of finding a job.

He didn't move, his face expressionless. Never did he imagine he would ever be homeless.

But Mike, who did not want to give his last name, has had no place to call home since New Year's.

A salesman for 20 years, he lost his job four months ago. His father died New Year's Eve. His marriage collapsed and soon he found himself out on the street.

"I had no where to go," said Mike, 57, who never collected an unemployment check in his life and until just a few weeks ago, lived in a quiet, central Union County suburb.

"I've never experienced anything like this. It's devastating," he said.

Mike, along with hundreds of others, became official statistics last Wednesday as Union County went about a coordinated sweep to determine the number of homeless in the county.

The statistics are used when the county applies for grant money from the federal government for programs to help the homeless, said Frank Guzzo, who heads the county's Human Services operations.

Those grants then go in turn to groups like Homefirst, the former Interfaith Council for the Homeless, based in Plainfield, and Bridgeway, in Elizabeth, for programs that provide job training, life skills courses and housing, Guzzo said.

While it will be several months before the homeless count is official, the last tally two years ago found 740 homeless persons in the county.

Although the greatest concentrations were in Elizabeth and Plainfield, 14 of the county's 21 communities reported having the homeless within their borders. In that count, Union reported 26 homeless, while Kenilworth reported 4.

But with few social services in the suburbs, many of those who suddenly find themselves without a roof over their head find their way to the more urban communities.

As part of an effort to have the canvas record the homeless situation as accurately as possible, the Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless put together an afternoon program to attract the homeless. There were a number of health services, including glucose testing for diabetes, HIV testing, blood pressure schecks and eye exams. There were also a number of representatives from social service agencies, including the Veteran's Administration and New Jersey Citizen Action, to explain to those attending the resources available to them.

"They find their way to the city because of the anonymity. They sleep in cars and under bridges," said Veronica McGowan, one of the event's organizers. "The point is to get them back into society."

As word spread of the afternoon event, the homeless and indigent lined up for hours waiting for a chance to see if any help would be available to them.

While the failing economy was the undoing for many, for others medical problems have taken their toll.

Emerson Hailey had just gotten off a bus and was crossing a street in Elizabeth when he was hit by a truck. He's on crutches now for an ankle broken in three places and he still needs more surgery, he said.

But for someone like Hailey who would seek out warehouse jobs, usually as a temp, picking up work where ever he could find it, now he is unable to work. The home where he used to stay and contribute to the rent is no longer an option because without an income, he was asked to leave.

"They told me I hade to go because I couldn't contribute anymore," said Hailey, 49.

Gary Williams has been staying at a Rt. 1 motel, his stay paid for with state-funded vouchers. But those vouchers will soon end, said the 31-year-old Elizabeth man, who said he suffers from seizures and as a result, unable to find steady work.

"I get disability, but it's not enough to live on," Williams said, adding that he hoped that his talks with some of the agencies would lead to something permanent.

While nearly 120 homeless turned out Wednesday, the following night staff from the county's Department of Human Services, along with a phalanx of volunteers, went to abandoned buildings and other known gathering places in Elizabeth and Plainfield to find those, who did not necessarily want to be found.

Union County Freeholder Rayland Van Blake, who is from Plainfield, praised the county staff and volunteers for all their efforts.

While the homeless may be concentrated in the cities, no community is ever really immune, especially given the current state of the economy, he said. And while collecting all the statistics on the homeless is vital to securing federal funds, "it's important to remember that these are not just numbers. These are people in pain, and people the county is committed to helping," Van Blake said.

Story provided by Union County Feature Services

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