Category Archives: Policy

Free Tax Assistance for Working Families in Mercer County

By Engy Shaaban

The Mercer Creating Assets, Savings and Hope Campaign (CASH) has partnered with United Way of Greater Mercer County (UWGMC) to offer expanded free tax prep services in Mercer County as part of the IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program (VITA).

VITA offers free tax services to individuals whose annual income is $65,000 or less. The program provides other services in addition to the free tax prep including assistance filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), credit counseling, and debt management services.

There are IRS-certified volunteers at all tax sites who are trained in basic tax law. Many locations have volunteers who speak other languages and can assist those who have difficulty communicating in English, as well. You can call 211 or visit to find a free tax return preparation site, a full list of New Jersey tax prep locations, and a link for the UWGMC site to schedule an appointment. The majority of the sites, which are listed below, run on a walk-in, first come, first serve basis.

It is worth noting that this year if you are claiming EITC credit, the returns will not be processed until February 15, 2017. This delay will cause the refunds not to be available for at least two weeks later. Be aware of offers claiming that they can complete these returns earlier. Those making such offers cannot submit them and may actually be offering you a loan, instead.

If you are planning to visit any of the sites listed below, you will need to bring the following: picture ID; Social Security Cards (or ITINs) and dates of birth for the taxpayer, spouse, children, and any other dependents you are claiming. Please note that if you are married but filing separately from your spouse, you will also need your spouse’s social security number.

You will also need dates of birth for all taxpayers and dependents, W2 forms, a year-end pay stub, and 1099 forms.

Likewise, you will be asked to present a statement with unemployment amounts paid and taxes withheld, your last paystub or end of year pension statements, ACA healthcare forms 1095-A, 1095-B, or 1095 C and insurance information with months of coverage for each person in the household and records of related medical expenses (totaled).

You will also be asked to provide statements that record charitable contributions of $250 or more (also totaled), rent or mortgage interest statements, and property tax information. Finally, a copy of your last income tax return, bank account and routing number will be needed.

Click here to learn more.

School Lunches: Do The Portions Satisfy A Child’s Hunger?

By Ashbel Soto & Jon Hall

Food insecurity has become a major issue in Trenton, affecting the lives of families and children. Many children rely on school lunches for much of their dietary needs. The government has enacted a federal program to ensure that students in public schools do not go hungry. The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is a federally assisted meal program that provides nutritionally balanced, free or low cost lunches to children every day. Its main objective is to provide a well balanced meal to students in an attempt to better their health and academic achievement. Many students who come from low-income families qualify for free or reduced lunch if they meet the criteria on the application provided by the Trenton Board of Education. The Trenton Central High Chambers released that about 58 percent of the student body population in the Trenton school district get free or reduced lunch. The NSLP requires that students meet a certain income bracket to qualify for free or reduced lunch. That income bracket ranges depending on the number of people per household. If there are two members in your household, then your average income should be $21,257. There are students who do not meet the income bracket, but they still cannot afford to pay the $2.57 daily for lunch meals in the Trenton Public Schools. Kadelta Sykes, the supervisor of Eickhoff Dining Hall and the supervisor of Food Services for Parker Elementary in Trenton, stated that the number of applicants for the free or reduced lunch program is increasing. “If most parents qualify for food stamps, then they are able to get free or reduced lunch,” said Sykes. “Most kids are ashamed to say they are on food stamps or free or reduced lunch, but it’s okay when you need the meal. Most parents fight for their kids to be accepted into the free or reduced lunch program because it lessens the burden of them having to pay for it.” Although every child receives a meal, are the portions adequate to satisfy a child’s hunger?  “The portions are adequate because we provide fresh vegetables, hot vegetables, canned fruit, fresh fruit, juice and milk,” Sykes said. “We give children enough food for a lunch meal and fresh food to give them the nutrients they need.” There are also students who pay for lunch, but may sometimes not be able to afford it. “Most students do not pay for lunch, but those who do and cannot pay for lunch that day, we give them a cheese sandwich and fresh vegetables,” said Sykes. “Parker elementary has a program that requires students to have fresh fruits and vegetables with their meals. Often times, students ask for cheese sandwiches instead of a regular meal, so we prepare enough cheese sandwiches for the day to make sure there is enough for everyone. Our goal is to ensure that no student is left behind or hungry.” According to the Trenton School Board, there are approximately 200 students in the Trenton Public School system who are experiencing homelessness and often worry about when their next meal will be. Most students depend on school meals to feed them since they do not have cooked meals at home on a daily basis. The New Jersey Department of Agriculture stated that one of the objectives of the national school lunch program is to provide onethird of the recommended dietary allowances for lunch. However, there are students within the Trenton Public Schools who say the quality of the food is not appetizing enough for them. “I didn’t really eat school lunch. I would skip lunch most of the time and would wait till I got home to eat,” said a current junior biology major here at The College of New Jersey, who is a former student from Trenton West High School. “However, when I did eat the school lunch, the portions were okay to meet my needs.” She believes that the Trenton Board of Education should attempt to improve the quality of the lunches. Sykes has a different opinion on the quality of the food in Trenton Public Schools. “Every year the quality of the food gets better,” Sykes said. “ At first, fresh fruits and vegetables were only delivered two times a week. Now, delivery with fresh produce comes in four times a week. The cafeteria cannot sell snacks that are not state approved.

As of right now, we also sell baked chips to students with their lunches, which is healthier.” Food insecurity in Trenton has become an issue affecting the student body population. Trenton does not have many local or nearby grocery stores for many Mercer County residents, which makes it impossible for families without vehicles to go grocery shopping. Studies have shown that Trenton only has about three local supermarkets, which forces residents to reside on local fast food chains or bodegas (corner stores). This food desert problem in Trenton affects students academically because students find themselves skipping breakfast at home, giving them little room to focus on their school work and more on their hunger. The NSLP also provides breakfast for students, which satisfies their nutritional needs, enhances their attention span, allowing them to succeed academically. When a student’s hunger is satisfied, it gives them more room to concentrate on what is occurring in class and encourages them to participate more. However, Trenton Public Schools serve breakfast during a certain time frame, which many students have a hard time meeting. Students who take the bus are not liable for their late arrival to school. The school kitchen does not serve breakfast after the time is up — leaving students hungry. Sykes said that although students arrive late to school, most of the time, there are extra snacks left from breakfast that students are able to have. She added that if a child walks into the cafeteria after breakfast has been served, they’re allowed to get juice and a snack to take with them. Although there are many different views on the Trenton Public Schools food distribution, schools are ensuring that the children’s hunger needs are met. With an 11.9 percent poverty rate in the Mercer County area, it is probable that the number of children on free or reduced lunch will increase. The Trenton school district is doing everything to ensure that their children have the proper healthy meals each day.

Mercer Is First NJ County To End Veteran Homelessness

By Jared Wolf

As of December 2015, Mercer County accomplished its mission to provide shelter for every homeless veteran seeking assistance. This makes it the latest community to respond to the nationwide challenge to end veteran homelessness that had been issued in 2010 by First Lady Michelle Obama. The city of Trenton, in conjunction with Mercer County, first addressed the issue in early 2015, with a joint effort from other veteran and non-profit organizations, which included Mercer Alliance to End Homelessness. The collaborators worked closely together to seek out each of the veterans in need. Many of these patrons came through the Rescue Mission of Trenton, as well as other organizations across Mercer County. The county and city has achieved what is being called “functional zero.” This is defined as having the processes and resources in place to immediately house a veteran. When the movement first began last year, there were 79 homeless veterans in the area. Through a systematic screening process and partnerships with Soldier On, Community Hope and other veteran programs and housing providers, the veterans were promptly afforded the services they required most. According to Mercer Alliance to End Homelessnese, of the 79 veterans who were offered assistance, only two remain without permanent housing. Housing is available to them, but they have declined for undisclosed reasons.

Mercer Is First NJ County To End Veteran Homelessness By Jared Wolf Kevin Bryson, a sophomore at The College of New Jersey and a yearly recipient of the ROTC scholarship, reflected on the recent feat, stating “I think that as a nation, our veterans can often be overlooked and underappreciated, and to see our county act so proactively for these people is truly something to be proud of.” Mercer County has long utilized a “housing first” strategy, which prioritizes putting those people in need into permanent housing, subsequently providing them with the resources to combat substance abuse, and offering them mental health counseling. Ultimately, the goal for these veterans is to be able to use their new housing as a tool for a better future. While Mercer County should be proud of this accomplishment, it is important to understand the plight of homeless veterans remains problematic nationwide. Someone who is not homeless today might be homeless tomorrow — homelessness is a fluid issue and must be treated as such. “We as a community owe it to these struggling veterans to provide the necessary care and aid so that they can transition back into society as smoothly as possible,” Bryson said. This is a great first step for Mercer County and for the state of New Jersey as a whole. Veterans should remain high-priority, as it is the only way to ensure that we, as a community, do not walk away from the goal that the First Lady set out for us to achieve.

Congress Allocates Increased Funds For New Jersey Housing

By Sarah Kayaten

Congress has passed the final fiscal year 2016 (FY 2016) budget allocated to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). According to their official website, HUD is “focused on helping to secure quality housing for Americans, ending homelessness, making our communities more resilient from natural disasters, protecting people from housing discrimination and providing rental housing assistance for millions of extremely poor Americans.” For 2016, HUD’s budget, approved by Congress, is about $47.2 billion — about 2.3 billion less than President Obama’s proposal, but two million more than the previous year’s budget. In a hearing on the “FY 2016 Budget Request for the Department of Housing and Urban Development,” the secretary of HUD, Julian Castro, notes in written testimony that “[increases in HUD funding] are provided to protect vulnerable families, reverse the effects of sequestration (cuts in HUD funding), [and] make significant progress toward the goal of ending homelessness.” Secretary Castro also stressed HUD’s initiative to support community-centered investments, including “funding to revitalize neighborhoods with distressed HUD-assisted housing and concentrated poverty.” Such goals and principles are illustrated in the budget’s summary, found on HUD’s website.  The budget ensures there are sufficient monetary resources to support community improvements, including a $170 million expansion of Choice Neighborhoods. The Choice Neighborhoods program supports locally driven strategies to address struggling neighborhoods. In response to the needs of the surrounding neighborhoods, Choice Neighborhoods allocates money to help replace distressed public housing with “mixed income housing,” which is often represented as building apartment complexes that would provide a stable “mixed” income to the area. HUD also aims to expand housing mobility through its increased funding for voucher programs. About two billion dollars are set aside for the Housing Choice Voucher Program to help approximately 2.4 million low-income families afford decent housing in neighborhoods of their choice. In addition to supporting all existing vouchers, the budget provides funding to restore approximately 67,000, many of which were lost in 2013 due to sequestration — $3 billion cuts from HUD’s FY2013 budget. Secretary Castro also emphasized that HUD’s mission is not to provide temporary relief and housing, but to provide opportunity and a platform of positive economic growth going forward. The $100 million request for Jobs-Plus seeks to increase employment opportunities and earnings of public housing residents. According to HUD, this “welfare-to-work demonstration” is marketed toward “able-bodied,

working-age resident at a public housing development in each of the following five cities: Baltimore, Chattanooga, Dayton, Los Angeles and St. Paul.” The program aims to combine employment services, rent-based work incentives and community support for work. The budget also provides for many other services, including a Youth Homelessness Demonstration Project with the goal of ending and preventing homelessness for youth and young adults, as well as other grants targeting community and agricultural development in rural areas to improve economic growth. To insure that HUD has the resources to study the effectiveness of such programs, $35 million is allotted to HUD’s Office of Policy Development and Research (PD&R), which HUD states is “responsible for maintaining current information on housing needs, market conditions and existing programs, as well as conducting

research on priority housing and community development issues.” With the exception of Jobs Plus, these programs are available to the 50 states. New Jersey, however, is one of 13 states that received additional aid from HUD. A part of HUD’s 2016 Budget, $1 billion was allotted for storm resiliency projects in the wake of the 2013 Super Storm Hurricane Sandy. According to POLITICO New Jersey, funds were allotted to 13 states based on a rigorous, multiphase application process. New York State received the most at $35.8 million, not including the $176 million that was already allotted to NYC. New Jersey came in last, with a mere $15 million in federal funding. Secretary Castro cites the lack of diligence by Governor Christie’s administration in completing the proper documentation as the reason for New Jersey’s meager funds. But things are still looking up for New Jersey. As the deadline to request hurricane relief aid for 2017 approaches in September, New Jersey has another chance of securing the relief aid it needs As of now, New Jersey’s statistics suggest a positive trend. According to a report released by Monarch Housing Associates, the total homeless population in New Jersey has been decreasing over the last five years at an average rate of 7.6 percent. Hopefully, with HUDs’ budget greater than ever, 2016 has the potential to see even greater drops in homelessness.

Housing and Urban Development For general questions about HUD, please contact the State office located in Newwark.

Phone: (973) 776-7200


CEASe: Housing Made Easy


By Khadijah Yasin

Communities across the nation have been affected by homelessness for years, with people living in shelters and others in the streets. The Trenton area is no exception to this reality, where a large percentage of its people living without a place to call home, many for long periods at a time. Fortunately, Trenton and Mercer County have developed programs and initiatives to provide support for those living through the struggles and hardships of homelessness. One of these initiatives is the Coordinated Entry and Assessment System for Homeless Individuals, CEASe, which focuses its efforts on helping those in the Trenton community, in particular. The CEASe system is currently being run through the CEAS Center. This center assesses the status of individuals experiencing homelessness and acts as the point of entry into housing and permanent residency. “We’ve targeted the most vulnerable people in the [homeless] community,” says Janet Porter, the supervisor of the CEAS Center.  Those who fit the criteria that CEASe has in place are granted housing. Individuals under assessment must be chronically homeless — meaning they have been homeless for an extended period of time and/ or disabled. These mandates are set so that those who need the support urgently receive it quickly. Currently the CEAS Center receives patrons from agencies throughout Mercer County such as the Rescue Mission of Trenton, where hundreds of individuals experiencing homelessness are sheltered and cared for. The CEAS Center also partners with the Mercer County Department of Human Services, the Mercer County Board of Social Services, The City of Trenton Department of Health and Human

Services, and Mercer Alliance to End Homelessness. The main priority of CEASe is to filter through potential clients, and to provide housing to those with the most need. An important aspect of the process ensures that the housing is varied for every patron and that it meets his or her individual needs. This housing is founded by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Many of the patrons coming from these shelters are accustomed to the community-based settings that they promote. And for this reason, the CEAS Center and its partner organizations work to make the transition into housing an easy and comforting process for the client. To ensure a smooth transition, clients are provided with support housing. “Many of these people have to have support and it is important that we meet the client’s needs,” said Porter. Additionally, Porter explained that the homeless community has a large majority of disabled individuals — some mentally disabled and others physically disabled — who need help feeling safe and healthy. The CEAS Center works to provide support housing and services that cater to the individual needs of its clients. As of now, the CEASe initiative is still developing and taking steps to expand its efforts across the Mercer County area. According to Porter, the CEAS Center only accepts patrons who are referred to it from shelters like Rescue Mission; it also hopes to expand and help those living on the streets, as well. The organization is making strides and to ensure it continues to progress, it is being evaluated by the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS).