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Bergen County Ended Chronic Homelessness, So Can Every Other Community

“If your goal is not to eliminate homelessness in your community then your efforts will seem aimless.”

“This is not easy work. You must be able to work in the interest of people who will test your ability to care for them. These are the ones who need us the most.”(Photo: Garry Knight/cc/flickr)

When I signed up to attend a symposium on Ending Homelessness in Newark, New Jersey on November 25th of this year the best I was expecting to hear was a much needed morale boosting pep rally for those of us who have experienced homelessness and are working on the front lines of this seemingly intractable situation.

Why?

Chief among my reasons for feeling so despairing about ever ending homelessness is the fickle and careless way most social service agencies I’ve encountered function in relation to the people who come to them for emergency housing services. Here are just a couple of examples. In order to receive emergency assistance an applicant must provide proof that no one in their family is declaring them a dependent on their tax forms. Many young homeless are homeless because they are estranged from their families and not on speaking  terms. Applicants for emergency housing assistance must also prove that they are not eligible for unemployment benefits. If you are, and even if those benefits don’t amount to enough to pay rent and live on, you are nevertheless turned down for emergency assistance.

These casualties of our social services system will then become life-long wards of the state—experiencing endless cycles of rehab and incarceration—for however long they manage to survive (and not actually live, just survive).

I could go on with examples like these but what’s the point? Social services personnel too often act as though their job is to find obstacles to providing housing rather than trying to make their services readily available. There is a reason why they are called emergency services; a meaning that seems to get lost when it comes to actually providing the services.

But not on me and others who work in this field. The longer it takes to get a homeless person off the street the greater the chance they will suffer severe mental and emotional damage, become prone to abusing drugs and/or alcohol, and in time render themselves unreachable. These casualties of our social services system will then become life-long wards of the state—experiencing endless cycles of rehab and incarceration—for however long they manage to survive (and not actually live, just survive).

This is a horrific scenario I have watched play out many more times than I care to recall.

So when Julia Orlando, the symposium’s key note speaker, walked up to the podium and declared that Bergan County, New Jersey—which she serves as the Executive Director of the Housing, Health and Human Services Center—had ended chronic homelessness in 2017, I was at once guardedly elated and reluctantly pessimistic. I‘d heard this kind of declaration made before, with qualifications— ended effectively, virtually, blah blah blah…It becomes a polemical numbers game skewed to make your desired results seem real.

But even after spending more than a decade working with the homeless and listening to countless speeches on the subject, I try my best to remain open—minded. It’s only fair to the speaker; plus, I can tell within minutes if a person is talking from experience or passing on second-hand sociological theories.

The longer I listened to Ms. Orlando speak the more intrigued and engaged I found myself becoming. Here are a few ‘tells’ from her talk that let me know she was walking the walk not just talking the talk.

Number one for me: “If your goal is not to eliminate homelessness in your community then your efforts will seem aimless.” And, I added in my mind, “your morale will fall off the nearest cliff.” She continued: “This is not easy work. You must be able to work in the interest of people who will test your ability to care for them. These are the ones who need us the most.”

For me, there is nothing more deflating to my morale than to give everything I can to find housing for one of these troublesome sorts only to have my efforts undermined by bureaucratic endgames and human carelessness.

Ms. Orlando also takes great pride in being an effective executive, which is fundamental to having any success in this field: “The first thing I want to highlight is that everyone in this work is a leader. Everyone has an important role to play—no one is insignificant in this work. Leaders and those who lead—inspire others—not because they have to, but because they want to. When I was hired to be the Director of the Center no one said to me, ‘You have to end homelessness.’”

Unlike Ms. Orlando, I do not have any executive training, position or institutional power. I simply know, respect and care about the homeless members of my community. I do what I do in my own time and on my own dime. This has advantages—I can maintain my independence—and disadvantages, my personal finances, such as they are. Most counties have satellite agencies affiliated with state-run mental health entities whose counselors help the homeless navigate social services, look for jobs, make medical appointments and get counseling. The homeless qualify for these mental health services because being homeless is a traumatizing experience.

The homeless qualify for these mental health services because being homeless is a traumatizing experience.

My self-appointed role is to introduce these mental health workers to the homeless, whom they would likely not otherwise encounter.

”We must abandon the past ways we have worked together because it can only take us so far. Great change takes a willingness to see things differently,” Ms. Orlando said. “Our work shifted from fixing people to housing people. No matter how different our orientation, training or perspective was about this work, we were all aligned on one thing—housing…. Once you make this big commitment you need to figure out how to help one person and then another one and then everyone.”

If you are thinking that perhaps Bergan County can achieve this because of its small size, monotone demographics and remote location you could not be more wrong. Bergan County is located directly across the Hudson River from Manhattan, it is the most populous county in New Jersey (948,406); and its population is as diverse economically and racially as any similar American urban center.

In short, if you can find a demonstrable way to end homelessness in a place like Bergan County you should be able to replicate their model anywhere. Here are Ms. Orlando’s main ingredients for her winning recipe for ending homelessness:

1) Provide one-stop housing health and employment services in a welcoming environment

2) Adopt the Housing First Model; Change the focus from fixing people to finding them housing.

3) Create a government, faith-based and non-profit collaborative model where everyone is bought into the same philosophy and goal

4) Provide low—to no—barrier housing focused sheltering. (For example, no intake process that involves extensive questioning or identification requirements.)

5) Adopt a County Homeless Trust Fund. This can provide additional financing to acquire property, purchase housing rental vouchers, fund supportive services, and provide family homeless prevention projects.

Julia Orlando is willing and eager to assist others in ending homelessness in the communities where they live. She is available for consultations, conference calls and one-on-one meetings. Reach out to her at the Bergen County, Housing, Health and Human Services Center, 120 S. River Street, Hackensack, NJ 07601. 201-336-6476 (w).

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James Abro

James Abro

James Abro is the author of An Odyssey in the Great American Safety Net, a personal memoir of homelessness and recovery. He is the founder of Advocate for Economic Fairness and 32 Beach Productions.  He works locally with faith-based Homeless Outreach groups, and nationally as an advocate for Homeless Rights.  He is a regular contributor to Rebelle Society and TalkPoverty.

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