City Agency Keeps Trenton Residents Healthy

By Maksymilian Popinski

For many, the past few months have been about scrambling to get the flu shot and scheduling checkups before the fall weather goes from brisk to frosty. For individuals experiencing homelessness in Trenton and elsewhere in the state, the reality is very different.

Compared to 2015, the homeless population in New Jersey has declined by over 12 percent, but this is not the case in Trenton. Currently, the number of individuals seeking assistance as a result of  homelessness. “People come on the River Line from other areas because we have the Rescue Mission and we have the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen,” Director James A. Brownlee of the Department of Health and Human Services for the City of Trenton said.

A number of these individuals are experiencing substance abuse problems or other mental health issues. And Trenton is having an increasingly difficult time accommodating the influx. The Trenton Department of Health and Human Services is a member of the Trenton Health Team, a 501(c)(3) non-profit that includes Capital Health, St. Francis Medical Center, and the Henry J. Austin Health Center (their only federally qualified health center). The four entities collaborate to provide medical services for individuals experiencing homelessness throughout the county.

Together, these entities locate and provide medical evaluations of incoming homeless patrons, and continue to track them throughout the year. They also coordinate an outreach program that seeks out at-risk individuals who are on the brink of experiencing homelessness, have deteriorating medical conditions, or are at the mercy of inclement weather.

The Department of Health and Human Services works alongside the different groups to monitor communicable diseases (such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and hepatitis) within the city’s homeless population, as well. It also works to contain infection and helps individuals procure antiretroviral drugs, antibiotics, or other medicines they may need, as well. Its initiatives also address a wide slew of chronic conditions, including cardiac disease, diabetes, and drug and alcohol addiction.

Those who have these serious medical conditions are put in touch with Henry J. Austin Health Center. As a federally qualified health care clinic, Henry J. Austin is partially funded by the federal government to provide primary, as well as preventative health care, to individuals experiencing homelessness. These services include oral health, psychological/behavioral health, and specialized geriatric care for the increasing number of elderly persons experiencing homelessness.

The Department of Health and Human Services also collaborates with Anchor House, a non-profit that locates and supports juveniles experiencing homelessness who may also be facing dangers like abuse/neglect, pregnancy, and susceptibility to illicit substances. Anchor House coordinates with the Trenton Health Team to provide medical services to the adolescents that the organization works with.

As the cold winter weather approaches, the Department of Health and Human Services works around the clock in partnerships across Mercer County to ensure that individuals experiencing homelessness are receiving the medical supports they need to be healthy.

UEZ Program Ends in New Jersey

By Jared Kofsky

A decades-long program allowing individuals to purchase items at a lower tax rate in cities like Trenton has ended.

New Jersey’s Urban Enterprise Zone program (UEZ) was established more than 30 years ago, and served dozens of municipalities across the state, from West New York to West Wildwood. Under the program, customers at local businesses paid only a 3.5 percent retail sales tax as opposed to the state standard of seven percent in other areas of New Jersey. However, Governor Chris Christie was not in favor of continuing the operation of the UEZ, and allowed it to expire on December 31.

Trenton residents experiencing homelessness or poverty could be impacted greatly by the end of the UEZ program. Participating businesses were required to have 25 percent of new employees be city residents, to have been unemployed for at least six months before being hired, to be recipients of public assistance programs for at least six months before being hired or be determined to be of low-income, according to the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs. And while the tax increase could raise funds for the state, the increased cost of items at city stores could take more out of the pockets of local residents, and could also reduce the incentive for outsiders to visit and spend money in the city.

Despite this, Christie has stated that UEZs were a “failed 30-year experiment,” adding that keeping them  “would cost the state $2.33 billion in lost revenue over the next 10 years,” according to NJTV. The governor has not announced plans to replace the UEZ with another program.

When the end of the UEZ was announced, many Trentonians, and local officials were outraged. Trenton’s UEZ program website cites multiple success stories from businesses across the city. John Ahn, the manager of the Food Bazaar supermarket at the Roebling Market in Chambersburg stated that the 3.5 percent sales tax “provides an added incentive for local customers to visit the store.”

Mayor Eric Jackson spoke exclusively with The Wall regarding the issue shortly before the program ended. “It [the UEZ] certainly is a tool in our tool belt for economic development when you talk about preservation to help bring people in as incentive to come into a great capital city,” said Jackson.

He added that ending the UEZ would leave a “negative impact” on the city. Similarly, State Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, who represents Trenton told the Press of Atlantic City in September that “ending the UEZ program is going to force hundreds of establishments to close or move.”

Shortly before the program was set to expire, there was a last minute effort by several elected officials to extend it for two years in Bridgeton, Camden, Newark, Plainfield, and Trenton. However, the extension bill was vetoed in February by Christie. 

Since the program was established in the 1980s, many local economies have been built around UEZs and thousands of residents have relied on these businesses. As the first year without UEZs in decades continues, the economic wellbeing and prosperity of cities like Trenton and the future of business in New Jersey’s urban centers remains uncertain.

Outreach Program Provides Identification for Mercer Residents

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.”

Jamie C: The Endeavor to Find Her Voice Again

By: Annette Espinoza

When the move from Chicago to New Jersey brought unexpected hardships, hindering her musical talents and expression, HomeFront New Jersey in Lawrenceville helped Jamie C. rewrite the lyrics and find her voice again.

Three years ago, Jamie made the move to New Jersey, but unforeseen circumstances put her in a challenging and unstable situation. Six months ago, these trying times brought Jamie to HomeFront, where she learned how to channel her frustration into inspiring works of art. There, she found a strong support system that motivated her to pursue her goals. “It is not always an easy road, especially when you are alone. But HomeFront never made me feel hopeless,” Jamie said.

Jamie credits HomeFront and it’s incredible staff for opening her eyes to what she is truly capable of achieving. With an extensive background in music including experience co-writing songs, participating in church choirs with Shirley Caesar, and singing backup for R. Kelly, HomeFront gave Jamie access to singing lessons and similar training opportunities to get her back on the stage.

“They made me feel like a superstar,” Jamie said.

Despite Jamie’s extensive musical background, regaining her voice did not come easily. Jamie recalls feeling restless and uneasy  before her artistic breakthrough. To assuage these emotions, she became involved with the ArtSpace art therapy program at HomeFront’s Family Campus in Ewing.

“I began painting music. The first piece I painted and sold was of a set of piano keys,” Jamie explained.

But even after this, Jamie continued to struggle. She was frustrated with her “rusty” vocal cords and an inability to sing songs the way she once had. Once again, in a dark and desolate place, Jamie reached out to HomeFront where Director Ruthann Traylor provided her reassurance and motivated her to persevere in the face of such temporary adversities. Jamie credits Traylor for much of her success today. As she began battling PTSD, depression, anxiety and bordeline personal disorder, Traylor went beyond her role at HomeFront, driving Jamie to therapy sessions.

Several months removed from all this, Jamie has recently moved into her own apartment. She is grateful to HomeFront for the skills she learned there and the invaluable support system that continues to guide her through the obstacles in her life.

With the support of organizations like HomeFront and individuals like Traylor on her side, Jamie is set on reaching red carpet goals: independence and financial stability, a healthy and sustainable relationship with her mental health, and an impact on the stage. As she moves forward, Jamie hopes to give back to those who gave so much to her.

“My life experiences are not for me. They are for others who are going through and need to move past similar experiences,” said Jamie.

Scott: Open Space and New Playground Enrich Children’s Lives

By Essence B. Scott

In 1999, the Trails End Motel in East Windsor, where I grew up, had a large grassy area to play in and a tree to climb. My siblings and I were usually the only children there and so we played with each other. We wanted other children to play with, though. In school, we were finally given this opportunity, but it was short-lived. Here, we spent recess playing tag and swinging alongside our classmates. A short half-an-hour later, we returned to the classroom and later that night, to the empty motel yard.

Children should be encouraged to explore nature and their surroundings: the sunny sky above their heads and the green grass underneath their feet as they go on adventures that exist entirely in their imaginations. When a child is experiencing homelessness, the only thing out there is a parking lot. Often times, there are no other children to play with. Their interactions that they have with children their own age are limited and brief — maybe at a rest stop where families stop on their way to a vacation destination.

Today, HomeFront’s Family Campus paints a different reality — one that I am happy to see. The Campus built a playground for its resident children to enjoy. It is unsafe for children to play on pavement and parking lots where they can easily be injured. They need to feel the wind on their face and the dirt between their fingers. They also need to connect with other children to build important social and emotional skills. Programs like HomeFront’s ‘Joy, Hopes, and Dreams’ and ‘Camp Mercer’ bring children together and provide them with this opportunity.

When I was a part of HomeFront’s community, I took part in the different recreational activities that they offered. I was a teenager, so I was not interested in the slides and jungle gyms, but the swings were my favorite. It got me out of the house and allowed me to build relationships with people besides my brother and sister. It also fostered a love for the outdoors and encouraged me to live a healthier life. I was always out and about, constantly walking and running around.

Gym classes are another good way to encourage activity and play, especially in elementary school where it is much less competitive. When I was younger, I did not like structured play in gym class; but as I got older, I enjoyed signing up for different extracurricular activities that were offered through the physical education department like the weight room, ultimate frisbee, and volleyball.

Sometimes, the older kids would get together to play football. I remember being reluctant to play with them — being tackled and breaking my glasses? No, thank you. When I finally had the courage to play, I had a great time. I was no longer homeless at that point, but the fact still holds. Children and teenagers experiencing homelessness are often stressed and recreation allows them to let off some steam and build supportive relationships with others. Playing outside or on a sports team and the face-to-face interactions here give children a place to channel their energy. Conversations on the playground are much more helpful than those had over platforms like Skype and FaceTime (although those can help, too).

The opportunity to interact with others is also important for adults. My mom did not have anyone to talk to other than my siblings and myself when we were homeless. There were no other adults to regularly mingle or chat with. The offices in the motels we lived in had adults who were too busy with their jobs to socialize with a lonely teen, an energetic child, or a quiet adult.

Backyards, public parks, and school playgrounds are all great places to socialize with others. Children who are homeless are consistently deprived of the opportunity to meet new people, especially if they are living in places that do not cater to this need, like motels and shelters.

I am grateful for the playground at HomeFront’s Family Campus where children can be children everyday.

They should not have to grow up so fast. Maybe there is a small playground that a family has built in their backyard where the neighborhood children can stop by to play, or a safe park where children can meet — we can and should afford children these important opportunities to enjoy themselves and grow.

Written with and for individuals experiencing homelessness in the Trenton, New Jersey area.