Westfield Leader and Scotch Plains–Fanwood Times

Local Towns Not Immune To Homeless Problem

The Westfield Leader and The Scotch Plains–Fanwood Times — Thursday, February 5, 2009

A recent sweep by the County of Union has turned up hundreds of homeless persons including four in Westfield and three each in Scotch Plains and Cranford.

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 last week's canvas record the homeless situation as accurately as possible, the Elizabeth Coalition for 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 nearly 120 homeless turned out January 21, 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.

"No community is immune to the homeless problem," he said. "I think we all want to see a day when these statistics are no longer needed."

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," Mr. Van Blake said.

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