by Lynda Wald
People are often surprised to learn how prevalent homelessness is in New Jersey (and Union County in particular). Although homelessness is an issue often associated with big cities, such as New York, my experience with homeless organizations such as Family Promise and Monarch Housing have proven otherwise. What is most upsetting is the number of children affected by homelessness.
Families with children represent more than 50 percent of homeless persons in New Jersey. Nationally, 1 in 30 kids experiences homelessness annually. Children under the age of 18 represent 23.6 percent of the homeless population in New Jersey (NJCounts 2016). One out of four homeless persons in New Jersey is a child (NJCounts 2016).
Students at WHS know how challenging the pressures of schoolwork and being a teen are… now imagine if you are homeless trying to juggle going to class, doing homework and studying for exams without the comfort and stability of a home. (Most of the time the student’s hardship is kept a secret from schoolmates.)
Being homeless in New Jersey has additional hardships during wintertime. Living in a shelter or being unsheltered (living in a car or the streets) is especially cruel and dangerous during harsh weather conditions.
Fortunately, there are many strong organizations and programs in Union County that house the homeless and those at risk of being homeless. These organizations also offer support services to help families get back on their feet – such as job coaching, literacy training and financial coaching. They also assist in tracking down affordable housing since limited affordable apartments make up a significant factor of homelessness in New Jersey.
Operation Warm Heart, an Elizabeth Coalition for the Homeless program, offers beds from November through March when the thermometer dips below 32 degrees, hosted by various Elizabeth churches. Elizabeth Coalition is a significant force to help the needy in Union County.
Code Blue Alert is a government program that allows authorities to take homeless people to local shelters or other agencies, known as Warming Centers. Another significant Union County program is Family Promise, which is a collaborative effort among churches and temples in Union County that hosts needy families. Housing, food and support services are provided to families that have nowhere else to go.
Next time you step outdoors with the freezing wind stinging your face, please remember teens who are less fortunate. As your ears thaw at home over hot chocolate, you might wonder, “What could I do to help?” Many wonderful organizations would love your time and support. Helping even one family is worth the effort.
Lynda Wald is a community board member of Union County Family Promise.