Homelessness exists everywhere, and the only difference between Bergen County and New York City is that the homeless [here] can remain hidden," said Richard Brown, director of Monarch Housing Associates, a member of the New Jersey Advocacy Network to End Homelessness.
Brown responding to a January study in which Bergen County was found to have the greatest number of homeless families in New Jersey recently coordinated a congressional reception in Washington, D.C., to raise awareness of the plight of the homeless and win increased funding for programs that address their needs.
Roselyn Altman, social action chair of Temple Beth Israel of Maywood, and Mary Sunden, interim executive director of Christ Church Community Development Corporation, attended the second annual congressional reception advocating for the homeless in Washington, D.C., on July 30.
Among the more than ’00 formerly homeless people, advocates for the homeless, and housing providers that attended the Washington event was Roselyn Altman, social action chair of Temple Beth Israel in Maywood.
The only synagogue representative to attend, Altman pointed out that her shul regularly participates in evening programs at the Orchard Street Shelter in Hackensack, catering meals for the homeless. In addition, members work occasionally at St. Cecilia’s family shelter in Englewood.
Legislators attending the congressional reception included Sens. Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez as well as Reps. Rush Holt (D-1′), Bill Pascrell (D-8), and Michael Ferguson (R-7). Brown noted that both senators have been extremely supportive of efforts to help the homeless, as has Rep. Steven Rothman (D-9), who was unable to attend the event.
Brown said that the lack of Jewish representation on the trip was "not intentional. This is our second year," he noted. "However, it is our first to do outreach to build the organization. We are always seeking to gain more members, especially from the faith-based community." He pointed out that one of the group’s more active members is Jewish Family Services in Atlantic County.
People who want to accomplish change must be "passionate" about it, he said. "We live in an imperfect world. It is our duty as citizens as well as people of faith to work to work to overcome the imperfections and ensure that all of us have the opportunity to live life with dignity and a place to call home. In addition, being passionate requires us to view this commitment not as work but something that we are doing as a result of deeply held values."
The January study found that some 4,000 Bergen and Passaic county residents are homeless over the course of a year. Of these, more than a quarter are children.
"The homeless voice is a silent one," said Altman, noting that she was inspired by the July 30 event to expand the synagogue’s outreach program. "They don’t vote unless they can establish residency. They need advocates and other voices to express their concerns." She said that during the trip, she learned of a group shelter in Garfield for homeless veterans and would like to see her synagogue become involved with that facility.
According to Brown, the most common factors contributing to homelessness are unaffordable housing (5′ percent), loss of employment (38 percent), high utility costs (33 percent), and medical issues such as physical and developmental disabilities (30 percent).
Alcohol and substance abuse are frequently given as main factors contributing to homelessness, he said. But "while this is true for a segment of the homeless population, this is not true for all."
"A large portion of the homeless population are individuals and families that are unable to afford housing costs and are working in jobs that pay wages inconsistent with the cost of living," he said. "When the causes of homelessness are attributed to drug and alcohol abuse, it is easy to place complete responsibility on the individual, but when the causes are large societal issues such as the lack of affordable housing or low wages, the responsibility is on the community at large. It no longer becomes an issue that can easily be passed off or ignored and it challenges society to take action."