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.

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 nj211.org 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.