New Law Provides Free Access to Birth Certificates

Article by Tasneem Amer and Jackie Rogan

A bill signed into law in January grants individuals experiencing homelessness in New Jersey access to a free copy of their birth certificate. After requests are made, IDs are processed by a social worker and can be used to access other forms of legal identification.

“The enactment of this law can be a first step toward healthcare, government assistance, and a path to self-sufficiency and a roof over their heads,” said Assemblyman Raj Mukherji, according to The Jersey Journal. Reliable forms of identification are needed to access many services and resources across the state such as disability benefits, food stamps, and health coverage.

In order to purchase a birth certificate, prices can vary from as much as twenty to almost fifty dollars in certain states. As for New Jersey, an online process and consultation costs approximately $25.

For many, this meant access to proof of citizenship which is particularly important for employment. “Many homeless citizens have no hope of getting off the streets and accessing social services and government benefits without proof of identity,” said Mukherji. Access to a free birth certificate can open doorways out of homelessness and home insecurity.

State Senator Shirley Turner expressed her views on this issue in a interview with The Wall: “Birth certificates are the most reliable form of identification which can serve as proof of identity when applying for public services or other forms identity, for example; photo ID cards, driver licenses, etc,” addng that “a birth certificate can also be used for the purpose of replacing or updating any other lost or incorrect vital records, such as social security cards, or marriage certificates.”

According to Turner, before this legislation was passed, it cost $25 for one to receive a birth certificate copy and an additional $2 for each subsequent copy, a cost that was prohibitive for many individuals experiencing homelessness, Turner stated.

“Homelessness is a complex social problem,” Turner explained, adding that “in order to decrease the homeless population, communities need to address a variety of underlying factors, which affect an individual’s ability to maintain gainful employment and access to housing.”

Photo by Jared Kofsky

Free IDs for Residents Experiencing Homelessness

Article by Jason Kantor and Rob Nason

For the past several years, of voter identification has been a major issue on both sides of the political spectrum. Many feel that photo identification should be required to vote. Similarly, a valid photo ID is crucial to anyone who is trying to get a job, or receive many supportive services. With that being said, there are many people who do not have a driver’s license, and cannot afford the necessary fee to obtain a government issued photo ID.

While voters are not required to show a photo ID to vote in New Jersey (something that residents of several other states do not have to do), there are still many everyday situations in which they do need to present a photo ID. If one cannot get a photo ID, it becomes increasingly difficult to perform basic tasks or to receive many of the services that all Americans are entitled to.

A recent New Jersey law works to correct this. The law, which starts in August, will interrupt the cyclical nature of poverty that occurs when a photo ID is required but inaccessible. The law removes the $24 fee that makes it hard for individuals experiencing homelessness or insecurity to obtain these ID cards.

Assemblyman Raj Mukherji notes that the fee was very worrying for these individuals: “The administration fee is the only thing preventing many homeless people from acquiring identification, when shelters and social services organizations are willing to help these citizens.”

Assemblyman Reed Gusciora also spoke of the importance of the new law in a statement posted in January on the website of the New Jersey Assembly Democrats: “Waiving this fee will make it easier for a homeless person to get the identification they need to get a new start. It is a simple but effective idea,” Gusciora said.

The process for obtaining these IDs remains the same. Not including the fee, the steps to obtain one includes providing proof of identity and address, filling out an application either in person or by mail, and having a photo taken. Recipients must visit their local Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC) agency to get the identification card printed. Individuals fourteen years of age and older can apply for a non-driver identification card.

The MVC has Mercer County locations at Bakers Basin at 3200 Brunswick Pike/Route 1 in Lawrenceville and in Downtown Trenton at 120 South Stockton Street.

Photo by Jared Kofsky

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.

Could The River Line Light Rail Come To The State House?

By Jared Kofsky

For those without a car, Mercer County was once quite simple to navigate. Dozens of trolleys and bus routes made transportation across the capital region much easier. However, today, there are just a handful of bus routes serving the county, no intercity bus service in Trenton, only one bus line to Pennsylvania, and train fares on NJ Transit and SEPTA are continuing to rise. Trips across the county that would take just a few minutes by car can take hours by bus. Yet, according to local leaders, one of the region’s most inexpensive modes of transit could potentially be expanded.

Right now, it costs $1.60 to ride the River Line light rail, which connects the Trenton Transit Center with Camden, over 30 miles south, stopping in communities like Palmyra and Pennsauken. No matter if you are traveling one stop or 20, the fare remains the same. However, accessing the line is difficult for many Trenton residents, due to the fact that the line does not serve most neighborhoods and has just three stops in the city.

Now, proposals once again call for extending the River Line by several blocks to an area near the New Jersey State House off of West State Street. NJ Transit spokesperson Nancy Snyder told The Wall that there are currently no plans to extend the line, but area officials remain undeterred. The MIDJersey Chamber of Commerce, published a report regarding the proposal earlier this year, advocating that “wages and employment opportunities will increase due to the light rail extension,” and that “14,000 direct and indirect jobs will be created as a result of the project”. It also stated: “the light rail system is associated with connecting low income households with new economic opportunities prior to the presence of the transportation system.”

Although the Trenton area has dozens of resources available to individuals experiencing homelessness, without a personal vehicle, accessing them can be difficult and expensive. An expansion of the River Line would allow more area residents experiencing homelessness and poverty to access more resources without having to spend the extra 70 cents for a bus ride. For example, just south of Trenton, there are food pantries near River Line stops in Roebling and Burlington. In addition, South Trenton residents could have easier and more frequent access to the many services available in Downtown Trenton, or within close walking distance across the river in Morrisville, Pennsylvania.

Likewise, there are hundreds of employers within walking distance of River Line stops, including the industrial parks and warehouses in Florence and throughout Burlington County. Many Trentonians, some of whom come from low-income households, currently take the River Line to work at Bai in Bordentown, but have to transfer from a bus to the light rail. This can cause inconveniences and missed opportunities. And while the River Line operates every half hour, many local buses in Trenton, like the 624, operate more infrequently.

Not all politicians are enthused about the plan. Earlier this year, Governor Chris Christie spoke against it, recommending that to reach West State Street, residents “use Uber” instead, according to The Trentonian, referring to the convenient, yet costly, taxi service.

Mayor Eric Jackson is, however, in favor of the River Line’s expansion, telling The Wall: “the expansion will spur economic development through our Downtown, even to our West Ward, and generate more business and more preservation throughout our city.”