Christie vetoes bill to restore help for homeless, wants people to prove hardship

By Susan Livio NJ Advance Media For NJ

TRENTON — Gov. Chris Christie partially vetoed a bill Monday that would have permanently restored housing assistance to thousands of chronically homeless and disabled people who lost aid when the program expired last year.

Democratic lawmakers sponsored the bill in response to the state Department of Human Services's announcement that two temporary emergency housing assistance programs would be phased out beginning last summer and would not be renewed. The programs serve people who are chronically ill and disabled and people who are taking care of a sick or disabled spouse or child. 

More than 3,000 people had relied on the assistance for years because they could not afford the average New Jersey rent on their welfare or permanent disability checks. The programs, though described as temporary, were renewed by prior administrations, amid concerns that finding affordable housing in a high-cost state like New Jersey was too difficult. 

Acting Human Services Commissioner Elizabeth Connolly has blamed county social service workers's lackluster efforts to move many of these recipients into jobs and homes they could afford. 

In December after an outcry from anti-poverty groups, the department contracted with community agencies to provide "intensive case management" to relocate the residents and extend rental assistance payments for six more months. 

Christie said he could support the bill if it was amended to provide two, six-month renewals of the housing assistance program participants could prove a hardship, but that was as far as he was willing to go.

The governor pointed to his record of reducing homelessness in the state, which includes creating housing for veterans. And the governor just proposed investing $5 million in the upcoming budget to fund 500 additional vouchers for the state's Rental Assistance Program for chronically homeless people, although the people in the temporary programs are not included .

"I cannot sign a bill that would fundamentally alter the purpose of this temporary program, potentially undermining our focus on finding permanent housing solutions for those in need," Christie wrote in his veto message released on Monday.

"The program is specifically designed to deliver temporary relief to individuals who encounter unexpected difficulties that necessitate emergency housing assistance. This bill would expand the temporary Emergency Assistance program to a permanent program providing housing-related benefits to certain individuals," Christie wrote.

Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), a sponsor of the bill (S983), said she was disappointed with Christie's decision but she would try to work on a compromise.

 "While I'm disappointed the Governor didn't sign this bill into law, I'm glad he recognizes the need for this emergency assistance for some of our most vulnerable," said Huttle.

Christie's version of the bill would require the state to give 10-days notice that the assistance program would be coming to an end, which Huttle said was not enough time and would cause unnecessary turmoil in people's lives.

"I am concerned that a 10-day notification period may not provide adequate time for individuals to find alternative housing.  I hope to work with my colleagues so that we can enact a fair compromise swiftly so as not to further delay these benefits," Huttle added. 

Susan K. Livio may be reached at slivio@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @SusanKLivio. Find NJ.com Politics on Facebook.