Category Archives: Policy

United Way: Turning The Tax Tables

By Madison Reilly

Tax season is a stressful time for most Americans. It can be particularly challenging for taxpayers who have found themselves homeless. It is a common misconception that homelessness is a dilemma exclusive to the unemployed. They can and do coexist.  According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, 44 percent of the homeless are regularly employed yet still cannot escape homelessness.

Filing taxes can be overwhelming to the average individual. When your daily objective includes providing your family with a healthy meal and keeping your children warm at night, tax preparation becomes of little importance. Without the luxury to afford a professional tax preparer it becomes even less attainable. To combat this issue the Homeless Resource Network has partnered with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) for over a decade to provide free tax filing.

Lost In The Shuffle by Malorie Cirello
Lost In The Shuffle by Malorie Cirello

VITA is a free tax return preparation program. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) sponsors VITA, which is established by local organizations within the community. VITA volunteers are trained and certified by IRS guidelines. Some include college students who are majoring in accounting.

United Way of Greater Mercer County in New Jersey offers VITA to families or individuals making less than $60,000 annually.

You can visit one of their sites located throughout Mercer County. Appointments are preferred, but there are several locations that accommodate walk-ins.

The following information and documents are required for tax preparation: photo identification, social security cards for yourself and all dependents being claimed as an exemption, employment wages (Form W2), unemployment collected (1099-G),  healthcare forms (1095 A, B or C), mortgage or rent interest (1098) and your property tax assessment card.

You will also need a copy of the previous year tax return or the last return filed.

If you are due a refund and want it to be directly deposited, then a bank routing number and account number are required. If you do not have a bank account, then it can also be deposited onto a prepaid debit card.

Many taxpayers chose to self-prepare their form 1040. This practice is not always beneficial to lower income families. There are various tax credits and deductions they may qualify for, but are unaware of. These credits could maximize their refund significantly. Without the assistance of VITA these credits may not be taken advantage of.

The IRS is regularly implementing new laws and regulations. A common credit for a low income family is the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). The program qualifies single adults with an annual income of less than $14,820 and married couples with less than $20,330 for receiving a credit of $503. This credit increases with each child. The IRS estimates that one in five taxpayers who qualify for this credit do not claim it.   

The mission of VITA is to assist eligible taxpayers in satisfying their tax responsibilities. To establish trust, the volunteers continue to maintain standards of high ethical conduct.  Individuals struggling financially would benefit from VITA. The program ensures clients receive their maximum entitlement available.  


United Way of Greater Mercer County provides the following VITA program locations:

Boys & Girls Club: 212 Centre St., Trenton

Walk-Ins, Mon, Tue, Wed – 9 a.m. – 2 p.m.

Catholic Charities: 39 North Clinton Ave., Trenton

Walk-Ins, Tue & Thu – 2 p.m. – 6 p.m.

Crisis Ministry: 121 East Hanover St., Trenton

Walk-Ins, Fri – 9 a.m. – 3 p.m.

Hamilton Public Library: No phone calls

1 Justice Samuel A. Alito Way, Hamilton

Walk-Ins, Wed & Thu – 9 a.m. – 12 p.m.

Latin American Legal Defense & Education Fund:

669 Chambers Street, Suite B, Trenton

Walk-Ins, Tue – 4 p.m. – 6 p.m.,

By Appointment, Saturday – 10 a.m. – 1 p.m., 609-688-0881


For additional locations call 211.


For more information provided by United Way of Greater Mercer County:

Call – 609-896-1912

Visit – 3150 Brunswick Pike, Suite 230 Lawrenceville, NJ 08648-2420

Selfless Service: Greater Trenton Expands Housing First Program

By Kristen Capano

As the 2016 Presidential Election rapidly approaches, discussions regarding mental health reform policy have continued to avoid the debate. Nevertheless, one certainty has remained consistent among all candidates — that every American, regardless of race or ethnic background, should be offered the same opportunities in order to succeed. That being said, one question advances — can these two topics exist independently?

For staff members at Mercer Alliance to End Homelessness, the answer is no. Over recent years, this New Jersey organization has made it their goal to rapidly rehouse Mercer County residents who suffer from homelessness in addition to mental illness and substance abuse. This program, known as Housing First, has been pushed by Oaks Integrated Care (formerly known as Greater Trenton Behavioral Healthcare) as a model to provide impoverished individuals with mental health issues apartments in order for them to get the medical attention they need — and it’s making a difference.

Beside Herself by KC
Beside Herself by KC

The Housing First program began its development back in 2008, when it was launched as a pilot program. Originally, its strategy was to place clients into shelters temporarily, and from there move them into transitional housing. Years later, the program was changed in attempt to move people into their own personal spaces, rather than under the same roof.

“Homelessness is the problem,” said John Monahan, former President and CEO of Oaks Integrated Care and current Chief Executive Officer of Housing First. “Our program [now] takes people off the street who have not been successful in the shelter system and puts them in apartments so that they can get healthy.”

By providing private housing situations rather than large-scale accommodations, individuals struggling with health issues — whether they be physical, mental, emotional, etc. — are safe from the diseases and traumatic events that inhabit the streets and are more likely to receive the treatment and space they need in order to establish themselves and/or their families.

Clients who suffer from mental illnesses as well as physical illnesses are usually picked up from one of the many state psychiatric hospitals and are then referred to the program by hospital staff or by personal choice.

“The mental health issues that we are finding most prevalent among those in the program are schizophrenia, major depression, bipolar disorder, and in 96 percent of cases, post-traumatic stress syndrome,” said Monahan. “Many clients also undergo different types of assault on the streets … you just can’t be healthy if you’re homeless, it’s not possible.”

Despite recent cutbacks from different funding sources that amounted in a major loss of $600,000, the program continues to receive an annual public grant from the New Jersey Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services, as well as a rent subsidy of $9,000 and direct services of $5,700 per person.

While $15,000 a year might seem like a lot, the original cost per person before cutbacks were made was around $12,000. Even emergency care police services cost more, amounting to a whopping $33,000 per year.

“For $15,000 a year, you’re helping someone get healthy,” said Monahan, who came across as enthusiastic when discussing savings. “There have been $4,000-$9,000 savings per person since last year, as well as a 78 percent medical reduction.”

Tuscany by Paul Norris
Tuscany by Paul Norris

Oaks Integrated Care also has access to data that both Medicaid and hospitals have in order to reinvest money into Housing First and preventive care.

Monahan also attributes much of the program’s success to the work of its dedicated staff. Those hired are required to have either a bachelor’s or master’s degree, usually in social work or psychology. This way, they are prepared to develop long-term relationships with the individuals they serve.

“For every staff member, there is a 16-person caseload,” said Monahan, comparing that figure to the 1-10 caseload from last year.

Regarding staff interactions with potential clients, Monahan added, “We hope to reduce the stressors that are afflicting [the patient], and from there we develop a relationship based on trust that helps them work through underlying problems.”

Although many of the homeless patrons adopted into this program improve their conditions after a mere couple of months, their relationships with the staff members will continue for years to come.

Last year, in 2014, Housing First served 165 chronically homeless individuals with disabling mental illnesses and another 185 residents who were in danger of losing their homes. Since then, Housing First has expanded to nine New Jersey counties, and has generated the most success in Trenton and Camden, where they have teamed up with the Good Care Collaborative, a group of New Jersey healthcare advocates led by Dr. Jeffrey Brenner that is committed to sensible Medicaid reform. Because of this success, Housing First currently houses 365 residents, a 33 percent increase from June 2014.

When asked if he saw any future success for the program, Monahan responded affirmatively: “I see this continuing,” said Monahan, “I would like to see people recognize that this is the way create more funding opportunities and to also keep people off the street — at the same time.”

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: Then and Now

By Michael Mytrowitz & Zack Mulhern

The history of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) can be traced back to 1933 when the Agricultural Adjustment Act was signed, which gave support to farmers who fell on hard times during the Great Depression.


Over the decades, laws and regulations evolved, eventually leading to the creation of SNAP to help combat the Recession of 2008.


Today, SNAP is the largest food assistance program in the nation, assisting 14 percent of the country that are in need of food and better nutrition.


According to Rucha Gadre, the Director Mercer Street Friends’ Food Bank, their SNAP facility alone helps 10 to 15 households per month in Mercer County.


The government ensures the stamps are not used for foods that do not promote good health or considered luxury goods.


In order to get into SNAP there are certain requirements that need to be met. Gross income, family size, assets such as vehicles, housing and legal status, are looked at when someone applies.


Even though SNAP was made to help people who are in need of assistance the program has been criticized. There have been many cases of fraud and exploitation of the act. People sell the food stamps and in many cases that money is used on illegal or destructive substances.


"Ribbons"  By Kevin Waverly
By Kevin Waverly

The SNAP program is not perfect as there are multiple regulations and requirements that can be very detrimental to those in need. For example, according to the Congressional Research Service July 2014 report, the SNAP-eligible gross monthly income is $1,245 or less per person. For a household of four, the SNAP-eligible gross monthly income is $2,552.


While these numbers seem very reasonable, the gross monthly income is the amount before any deductions are taken out such as taxes.


Say a single person working a very low paying job earns $1,300 of gross income monthly. Once taxes, social security and other deductibles are taken out, the actual dollar amount that the person is left with is only going to be around $1,000.


Think about trying to be an adult and feed yourself and provide yourself with basic needs and all you have is $1,000 per month. Not the easiest thing to do.


However, in certain permitting areas, some eligible candidates (elderly, homeless or disabled patrons) can actually go to a restaurant and get a free or discounted meal. This can be very valuable for people who are not always capable of cooking their own meal. Gadre detailed another flaw in the program that just appeared recently.


“What happened after October 2014 is that the utilities allowance was taken away from a lot of families,” said Gadre. “So the utility bill was not necessarily in their names. When you have an added expense which is not being accounted for and are getting less benefits, it is becoming harder for families to get by from paycheck to paycheck.”


Gadre agrees that the citizens are not completely satisfied with what SNAP has to offer.


Many people across the country rely on SNAP every single day. The program has evolved and continues to adapt to new regulations and social aspects. However, there are some things the program can do to improve and push the program to even greater heights.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: Which would you chose?

By Katie LaBarbera

Imagine it is the middle of winter, it is 12 degrees Fahrenheit outside on this particular day, and including the windchill, it feels like -5 degrees Fahrenheit. Many people hibernate in their homes with the heat on full blast, wrapped in a blanket sipping hot chocolate in the warmth. Now imagine a delicious, extravagant home-cooked meal. There is juicy steak, savory mashed potatoes, salad and a colorful assortment of steamed vegetables. But you can only have one: heating or food. Imagine choosing between having heat in your home and having food. Which would you choose?


According to the N.J. Federation of Food Banks hunger survey “49% of emergency food clients in N.J. report having to make the decision between paying for food and paying for utilities or heating fuel.”


Making the decision between paying for food and paying for utilities is not the only struggle people face. The difficult decisions people are also forced to make include paying for food or paying their rent or mortgage, as well as deciding between food or medical care.


Putting food on the table should not mean sacrificing other necessities. People use the money provided by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for other reasons besides purchasing food. Granted that there may be some loopholes within SNAP, the program has positive aspects that work toward the overall goal of ending hunger.


The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a federally paid program that provides food purchasing aid for low to no income individuals and families living in the United States. This program is one of the largest in domestic hunger safety. So large, that about 48 million people utilize the program.


The program aims to help eligible people in assisting them to make nutritional and informed decisions about food. SNAP recognizes that New Jersey is one of the largest populations of SNAP recipients in the country, with numbers nearly doubling nationwide in times before a recession.


According to the website, www., half of all American children will receive SNAP benefits before age 20, proving how much of an impact this program has on people.


"Floating Tree" By Daniel Brady
“Floating Tree”
By Daniel Brady

On the other hand, as stated previously, many people do not have the means to provide both food and heat in their homes for their families. According to the 2012 USDA Analysis of FNS’ Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Fraud Prevention and Detection Efforts, many recipients take advantage of the SNAP program by trading their benefits for cash or such things that are banned by SNAP, like cigarettes and liquor.


Moreover, such fraudulent accounts may occur due to the fact that SNAP denies recipients hot foods. Go back to that cold winter night; a hot bowl of soup or a warm meal would certainly make a huge difference in someone’s life. Because there are no hot meals being served, it is arguable that the food SNAP does offer does not meet optimal nutritional standards.


In addition, SNAP has recently been under scrutiny for changing their requirements for eligibility. This change is so drastic that about a third of families will be affected, and no longer qualify for their food purchasing assistance services.


According to Hank Kalet, a writer for N.J. Spotlight, “The change in eligibility … is the result of the cancellation of a utility allowance for about 159,000 New Jersey Families.” That is a huge number of families that are left without a way to put food on the table.


No child should wonder when their next meal will be and no parent should have to worry when they will be able to put food on the table for their loved ones. Being forced to make the decision between paying for warmth in one’s own home and food should no longer be a reality.


The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program is aimed at helping people not only get food, but also  to have access to quality information about food. Despite recent complications with eligibility, SNAP is making progress to end hunger across the nation.

Taking a closer look: Women, Infants and Children Program

By Lily Kalczewski

Since its original introduction in 1972, the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program has come a long way. Its mission is to help pregnant or nursing women, infants and children up to five-years-old who are at nutritional risk.


There are currently over 10,000 WIC locations across the nation. There are, however, three that can be found here, in Mercer County — the Trenton WIC office, the Children’s Home Society of New Jersey and the Children’s Home Society of New Jersey’s Mercer County WIC Program.


Eligibility is determined by family size, household income and proof of residency. Individuals need to also be able to provide evidence of nutrition or medical health-related risks.


Also, as the agency coordinator of Children’s Home Society of NJ’s Mercer County WIC Program, Jennifer Nagy said, “The Mercer County WIC Program will make every effort to help eligible families receive WIC services.” Not many people are turned down, and for those who do not meet one of the eligibility requirements, WIC offers referrals to other programs that can help.


WIC does a lot of things right. The program provides guidance, assistance, and ensures healthy children as well as confident parents. It helps educate mothers, provides them with health care as well as food benefits and gives them the tools to raise their children to be happy and healthy.


The program not only teaches mothers how to shop, cook and eat nutritiously, but it also offers breastfeeding support through telephone hotlines, peer counselors and mommy groups.


There are many local organizations that cooperate with WIC to help provide these food and healthcare benefits. The Mercer County Board of Social Services offers the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Mercer Street Friends has a food bank and the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK) serves free meals to those who need it. A local company to the east coast that has chosen to be a part of WIC is ShopRite.


The company has chosen to cooperate with the program because as Customer Service Manager of Zallie’s ShopRite in Clementon, N.J., Deby Doughtery said, “I believe we provide a service to our community by accepting WIC checks in our stores. Most participants are having financial difficulties and being able to use their benefits at ShopRite gives them one less challenge.”


Doughtery also pointed out the convenience this collaboration creates for participants because now they are able to purchase their WIC items in the same grocery store where they do their weekly shopping.


Although WIC has made great strides over the years, there are still challenges to overcome. As a Front End Supervisor, Doughtery said, “The biggest challenge I see is the participants are unsure of what they should be purchasing, so training the participants would be the one thing I think WIC could do better.”


"Woman with Flowers"  By Dolores Frails
“Woman with Flowers”
By Dolores Frails

ShopRite carries an array of WIC-approved items, as is their responsibility. And although this is the case, the company does not have to carry every version of certain food categories, which can be frustrating for patrons.


Nonetheless, ShopRite makes sure that the approved items they are carrying are in stock. If something they are carrying, like formula, is out of stock, ShopRite will get it in as soon as possible. Otherwise they will contact the WIC state office and work out a solution.


As for Nagy, she said, “I would like to see an even greater focus on breastfeeding education and support services through WIC as increased breastfeeding translates into healthier moms and babies.”


Nagy also acknowledges that the program currently provides a food package containing fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low fat milk and enhanced food packages to women who are breastfeeding. Nagy hopes, however, that more whole fresh food items will be added to these packages.


With the world becoming more technologically advanced, Nagy had one more suggestion for WIC to help make it an even better program.


“I would also like to see technology enhancements, such as an online application or pre-screening process and mobile apps to make shopping easier for WIC participants,” Nagy said.


Overall, WIC is a wonderful program that supports mothers and families who are enduring hard times. Its goal is to see children with full bellies, smiling faces and families who can breathe a little bit easier.


For Nagy, she enjoys working for a public health program that helps to nourish families.


“To me, empowering pregnant women and families with young children with the knowledge and understanding of the value of breastfeeding, healthy foods and regular health care has been the most valuable aspect of working for the WIC program,” Nagy said.



Trenton Division of Health 222 E State St Trenton, N.J.  08608 Phone: (609) 989-3636 Must call for a WIC appointment.

The Children’s Home Society of New Jersey 635 S. Clinton Ave Trenton, N.J.  08611 Phone: (609) 695-6274 Must call for a WIC appointment.

Mercer County WIC Program 416 Bellevue Avenue Trenton, N.J.  08618 Phone: (609) 498-7755 Must call for a WIC appointment.