2013-02-07 / Front Page
Homeless Connect volunteers reach out
County program identifies more than 500 homeless or struggling in Monmouth
Along with some of the dozens of volunteers working alongside her, she helped set up a small tent and information booth on the church’s Shrewsbury Avenue lawn, announcing the start of the seventh annual Project Homeless Connect initiative in Monmouth County.
The program, held this year on Jan. 30, is conducted by the Monmouth County Department of Human Services in conjunction with the annual Point-in-Time Survey, a nationwide event driven by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in order to get an accurate count of the homeless in America.
In addition to issuing anonymous surveys and encouraging the homeless to provide their demographic information, some basic details of their situation and their current needs, program organizers and volunteers also hand out clothing, supplies, food and information regarding social services and aid programs.
By the time Jan. 30 rolled around, Oesterheld and countless others had already been working for two days to coordinate deliveries of donated supplies from a county warehouse and prepare workers for the fivehour event.
On the day of the count, she and the rest of her team stationed at Pilgrim Baptist arranged tables, information desks and a working medical center; filled racks with donated winter coats, gloves and hats; and set out a buffet with bagels, pastries and coffee.
At 9 a.m. the doors were opened and the real work began.
“It takes a lot,” said Oesterheld, the designated site manager for the Red Bank location and executive director of the Community Affairs and Resource Center in Asbury Park.
“There is so much that goes into it. But I couldn’t say no.”
More than 70 volunteers from various local and state organizations signed on to help at Pilgrim Baptist, with similar numbers manning the county’s other Homeless Connect locations in Freehold and Asbury Park.
Jeffrey Schwartz, who manages the countywide effort as Monmouth County Human Services director of planning and contracting, said the goal is not only to get an accurate count of the homeless in the area for government funding purposes, but to provide them with the kind of help that can benefit them for the long-term.
“HUD requires us to do a count of the homeless every year or every other year. In New Jersey everybody does it on Jan. 30,” he said.
“In Monmouth County and many other counties we also look to attract those that are near homeless, those that are struggling. … We want to see them. We want to try to connect them with other services.”
Schwartz said that while the stopgap services provided at the Connect locations — including winter clothing, blankets, free food, a hot lunch at Soul Kitchen in Red Bank and household products like soap and shampoo — can help someone for a day or a few months, the services they could be directed to can help for a lifetime. “Physical stuff comes and goes, but the guidance can take them a much longer way, and that to me is paramount,” he said.
At each Homeless Connect location, volunteer professionals from various industries and agencies offer information on employment services, vocational training, veterans’ programs, legal advice, local, state and federal aid opportunities and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) programs for those who had been displaced by superstorm Sandy.
“We really want the children to be the beneficiary of the guidance; their futures are what we’re really focusing on. The adults we talk to, but the kids are the ones who get impacted most if they are cold or hungry or sick.” On the opposite side of the building, volunteers from the Visiting Nurse Association (VNA) of Central Jersey checked blood pressures, gave flu shots and ran blood tests, all free of charge, for adults and children who otherwise may not have the care.
“For a lot of these families, that’s maybe the only medical person they’ll see all year,” Schwartz said.
Eldra Radzik, a first-time volunteer with Project Homeless Connect, said she was working to help the many Spanish- and English-speaking visitors to find the help they needed, even if they didn’t know where to start. “They are looking for jobs, they are looking for places to stay, they are looking for a hot meal, they are looking for a coat to wear, or blankets for their children,” said Radzik, who works alongside Oesterheld at the Community Affairs and Resource Center.
“I knew from volunteering at other events there was a need for these kinds of services, but I didn’t realize how big it was, especially in Monmouth County where everybody thinks people have money. Which is not the case, obviously.”
According to Laurie Duhovny, Monmouth County Human Services Advisory Council coordinator, more than 550 Point in Time surveys were collected from the three locations. In Red Bank alone, volunteers collected 216, up from 165 last year.
Thirty-three surveys were also collected from the county’s mobile aid units, vans that traveled around the Bayshore and Neptune areas collecting information and handing out blankets and coats.
In addition to the individuals and families counted by the surveys, Schwartz said 425 homeless people are currently living in Monmouth County apartments, group homes and other shelters sponsored by social service programs. Hundreds more are living in motels and other temporary housing after being displaced by Sandy.
Though the surveys are anonymous, Schwartz said many are wary of speaking up or reaching out, which means there are likely even more homeless in the area than the county is aware of.
One goal of the Homeless Connect program, he said, is to reach as many as possible.
“We want to see them. We want to try to connect them with other services. We want to connect them to social services and other nonprofits in the county, or a case manager or a counselor,” he said.
“But government has a stigma to it. Not everybody trusts us, even though we’re the good guys. All we can do is reach out and try to help everyone we can.”
The donated supplies come from individuals, nonprofit groups and more than 50 local commercial sponsors, he said, with some area charitable organizations like Holiday Express serving as longtime partners for the initiative.
This year program coordinators also used those supplies to aid another county as well, Schwartz said, by donating hundreds of coats and blankets to the “Tent City” of displaced residents in Lakewood in Ocean County.
Oesterheld said this year’s Homeless Connect Program was more poignant than ever, as the Oct. 29 superstorm had not only made thousands more people homeless, but had awakened a spirit of volunteerism and communal support in the residents who made it through unscathed.
“Since Sandy, there has been so much more need in the area, 100 percent more,” he said. “I have been very fortunate in my life, I have so much to be grateful for, so it feels good to give back to the community. It’s what we should all be doing.”