By Cheryl Conway
Almost half of the homeless people in Morris County made a hopeful connection for a better life on Thursday, Dec. 5, after attending an outreach program.
Held annually in Morris County for the past five years, Project Homeless Connect (PHC) pointed atleast 169 people in the right direction. The event – which is hosted by the Mental Health Association of Morris County – was held at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
A “national day of hope” that provides assistance and services to people who are homeless, this year’s event was needed more than ever with the significant increase in the homeless population in Morris County since 2012.
“This year it is more relevant than ever as there has been a huge increase in homeless people needing assistance in Morris County,” says Barb Flynn, director of Development of the MHAMC. “This is especially poignant as many residents of Morris County don’t even realize that there are homeless folks here.
Although hosted by the MHAMC, the outreach program incorporates the efforts of non-profit social service agencies throughout the county, providing the most assistance to those in need all in one place. Participants learn about obtaining shelter, financial resources, medical care, domestic violence, mental health, substance abuse and more
“Participants accomplish in a day what might normally take months,” according to the MHAMC in Mountain Lakes. Although it is geared mostly to the homeless, the event is opened to others who are at risk of losing their home, have received an eviction notice, faced trauma or a health issue, or are “barely making ends meet so they can learn about food pantries,” says Falcone.
More than 50 volunteers were scheduled to staff the event; food donations were given from Starbucks, Costco, and Apple Spice Junction in Parsippany; free haircuts by local salons; and free coats were donated by the Morris County Chamber of Commerce from its coat drive at its November Business Connections meeting
Some of the agencies at the event included Community Hope, Jersey Battered Women’s Services, Legal Services of Northwest Jersey, Market Street Mission, 211- First Call for Help, and Office of Temporary Assistance.
“The day is supposed to be about celebrating the people who are coming in,” says Lisa Falcone, director of Homeless Outreach Services at MHAMC. “We try to help them feel safe,” by providing food, songs, the boy scouts. “We keep it a light day where we are giving people what they need. We want them to feel cared about and provide a welcoming environment.”
Reaching all the homeless people in Morris County can be difficult. Many learn about PHC through soup kitchens, service providers, flyers and word of mouth. At last year’s event, about 200 homeless people attended.
This year, MHAMC helped with transportation getting more people to the event from areas such as the Dover Soup Kitchen and “other rooms in the community,” says Falcone.
Homeless individuals who attend PHC can expect to be linked immediately to temporary assistance for shelter, and any other needed services. Each participant is given a card that requires them to visit a certain number of agency service providers on site in order to be eligible to receive a free gift at the end.
Each participant also receives a mental health assessment and if a person meets the criteria they will be enrolled into the MHAMC program for services.
“Our goal is that no one leaves there without shelter and services from agencies that they need,” says Falcone. “They leave with more information on how to access services.”
In addition to shelter, services and information, participants get sleeping bags, blankets, coats, gloves, hats, toiletries, shoes, socks, hand warmers, underwear, dental services and even a haircut.
“We can direct them on where they can get more of what they need,” says Falcone. “It’s really important to really help get what they need. We offer people an opportunity to get a shower at Market Street Mission so they can feel dignified.”
Falcone says, “The day was very successful.”
Many guests were linked directly to services: the Child and Family Resources saw 150 guests; Zufall Health Center saw 152 guests; Homeless Solutions saw 73 guests; The Jersey Battered Women’s Services (JBWS) saw 101 guests; Hispanic Affairs saw 57 guests; NewBridge Services saw 102 guests; Legal Services saw over 70 guests; Market Street Mission saw 73 guests; and more than 60 guests received free haircuts from Cuts 4U of Rockaway and Laboratory Hair Studio of Morristown.
The MHAMC Outreach Program is following up with several individuals that meet criteria for services. The HOMI case manager completed the opening paperwork for two men that are sleeping outside.
“We are working on a plan for continued shelter placement so that they do not stay outside,” says Falcone.
With statistics that show that the number of homeless people in Morris County is up, Falcone says there is a greater need for the MHAMC to reach even more people through outreach programs.
According to the Point in Time Count according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) regulations, on Jan. 30, 2013, there were 346 homeless men, women and children counted in Morris County. Homelessness in Morris County has been on the rise over the last three full HUD count years with an overall increase of 12.7 percent.
In 2012, the PITC was 281 homeless people in Morris County, compared to 317 in 2011.
The economy, rise in affordable housing, and high cost of utilities are some factors adding to the increase of homeless people in Morris County.
“The cost of the rental market is rising,” says Falcone. Five years ago, rent was a lot less. Falcone says it is difficult for people to afford to live in Morris County with their current income, and just as difficult for those on social security.
“It is a reality that the cost of housing here has gone up,” says Falcone. “The only affordable apartments are on the outskirts where there is little transportation,” which does not work since most homeless people do not own a car.
“People are more challenged in getting jobs more than they were before,” says Falcone, “and if they are getting a job can they afford what’s out there? People are working two jobs.”
Moving to a more affordable area is not always the best answer, says Falcone, because “people want to stay where they come from,” even more so when they get services provided to them by agencies such as MHAMC.
“Once you get connected you want to continue those services that you’ve been linked to and the services that you need,” says Falcone.
To reach the growing number of homeless, the MHAMC is increasing its outreach methods. There is now a drop-in center, Edna’s Haven at Trinity Lutheran Church in Dover which is open from 12:30 p.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday, for individuals to stop by for services such as food stamps, job referrals or are isolated.
The county has recently rewritten its homeless plan, says Falcone, and is “constantly revisiting and coordinating what’s needed. I don’t know what the answers are going to be. We are still helping people. There are a lot of successes but can we reach everybody?”
PHC began in 2004 when San Francisco wanted to provide necessary services to the homeless in their city. It grew into a national event and has been in Morris County for the past five years.
Founded in 1953, the MHAMC is a 501©3 non-profit organization that works to promote mental health awareness, prevent mental illnesses, and improve the care and treatment of people in recovery from mental illnesses through programs of education, direct service, and advocacy.
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