By Alyssa Gautieri
On any given night in 2007, there were 271 families and 840 individuals in Mercer County who were experiencing homelessness; many of whom were chronically homeless.
Through the strategic planning and operational supports provided by the Mercer Alliance to End Homelessness and its community partners, these numbers have decreased dramatically. According to a recent Point In Time (PIT) survey, homelessness in Mercer County has been reduced by over 70 percent for families, and 48 percent for individuals from 2007 to 2015. Both figures are well above the state and national averages.
While these PIT numbers, which reflect the reduction in homelessness on any given day in our community, are impressive, there are still significant numbers of homeless residents in Mercer County. The Rescue Mission of Trenton alone reported that over 1200 individuals sought their services in the past year.
“Unfortunately, individuals and families will continue to experience homelessness due to various circumstances. Our job is to find ways to end their homelessness quickly, and shorten their stays in shelter by getting them into permanent housing,” said Frank Cirillo, Executive Director of the Mercer Alliance.
In the coming year, the Mercer Alliance and its public and private non-profit partners will focus on ending chronic homelessness for individuals. These are people facing numerous health related challenges, and have experienced long-term homelessness, or multiple periods of homelessness over several years.
Cirillo, who joined the Alliance in 2007, recognized that a large number of these individuals did not have proper identification, such as birth certificates, voter registrations, driver’s licenses, or county identification cards.
Without this critical information, homeless individuals have great difficulty in accessing benefits and services like food stamps, Medicaid, or General Assistance. It also affects their ability to obtain employment, a bank account or establish residency.
“It is not uncommon for homeless individuals to lose documents or have them stolen. These items of identification are important to all of us, but to the homeless they can mean the difference between permanent housing and stability or living on the streets,” said Cirillo.
While obtaining these forms of identification seems like a simple solution, it can be a daunting task for individuals trying to navigate complex bureaucracies. It can also be very costly. For this reason, in July of 2015, the Mercer Alliance began the Homeless ID Project. This project mirrored an earlier Alliance endeavor in 2010 that was initiated by former Alliance employees Scott Fairman and Tarry
Truitt. That project was very successful, but was challenged by a lack of funding and the untimely death of Mr. Fairman.
The current project, which receives assistance from the City of Trenton, utilizes the contributions of CEAS Center and the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen to satisfy individuals’ identification needs. Their efforts are greatly enhanced by the hiring of formerly homeless individuals to be the “guides” in this process. “These individuals are among the 600 that Mercer Alliance has assisted on their road to permanent housing. They provide the practical help in obtaining IDs and serve as proof that the currently homeless can move from the street to a home of their own,” said Cirillo.
The Alliance’s Housing First and Rapid Rehousing strategies have indeed proven successful and have become national models, due to the contributions of funders and service providers that make up the Alliance. Many early skeptics have become important allies in building a system to combat homelessness; proving, once again, that we are stronger together.
“The ID Project is an important part of that work, but we still have much more work to do,” said Cirillo. “There are still many people in our community who experience homelessness each year. We continue to believe that creative policies and programming can change lives.”