We need a national Housing First plan implemented as soon as possible if we are to effectively deal with the problem of homelessness in America. This is a story that explains why.
I became homeless in 2009 and out of necessity learned how to make the services administered through the Ocean County New Jersey Board of Social Services work for me. They included housing assistance provided by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), food assistance (SNAP) through the US Department of Agriculture, and cash assistance through the General Assistance program made available by the State of New Jersey.
I am now in permanent Federal Affordable Housing and no longer need social services myself. So I try to use my own experience to help people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless get the social services they need. Currently, Emergency Housing Assistance offered through the Ocean County Board of Social Services is not easy to qualify for. The bureaucratic process is difficult to comprehend, and negotiating through it when you are facing housing insecurity and are stressed out is exceedingly difficult.
For example, I was contacted by members of a local church in my community after they had encountered a young man who was homeless hanging out in a shopping mall. They had given him some new clothing, and now wanted to arrange for me to meet with him because I have experience in homeless outreach, particularly in Ocean County.
In meeting with the young man, it was immediately clear to me that he was in serious trouble, mentally and emotionally. He could not maintain eye contact, tell me what he did that day, or articulate any plans he had for getting out of his present situation. He was sleeping in the wooded areas at night where he couldn’t be seen, and then wandering around during the day trying not to be seen. In my experience, this isolation is a recipe for serious psychological and emotional damage.
I asked him if he wanted a room in a motel or shelter for the night. He enthusiastically said yes.
I called a three-digit number for an Ocean County Board of Social Services’ special-response unit that is set up to address emergency situations (although the county’s website says, “Funding is limited so assistance is not always available”). They have teams available to quickly come and pick up people who are homeless, give them shelter, and take them to a social-services office in their county the next day to see if they qualify for more permanent assistance.