State: Blame N.J. local officials for ending aid for 3K homeless

Susan K. Livio, NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

TRENTON — Responding to criticism over the decision to let homeless prevention programs that paid the rent for 3,000 people in New Jersey lapse, acting state Human Services Commissioner Elizabeth Connolly on Monday accused local and county welfare directors of not making "any serious effort" to help their clients find permanent housing.

Social service agency officials and legal aid representatives call the loss of the Housing Assistance and Housing Hardship Extension programs "devastating" for the 3,019 chronically ill and disabled people who used them. They've called on the Christie administration to recognize the difficulties of finding affordable housing inthe fifth most expensive rental market in the country and reinstate the programs.

But in a letter Monday to state Assembly Human Services Chairwoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen) who held a hearing to discuss the expired programs, Connolly said the programs that ended in July were always meant to be temporary. County and local welfare officials had years to help them "navigate to permanent housing."

"Instead what we found is that many ... participants were rolled over" from one program to another, according to Connolly's letter, portions of which Huttle read aloud. "In some cases the state was supporting individuals caught in this cycle of temporary housing for over 10 years."

Beginning next month, according to Connolly's letter, those clients who still don't have permanent housing after "intensive case management" will get be able to enroll in a new six-month rental assistance program, with a possibly six-month extension "for very specific cases." 

And sometime in 2016, the state Department of Community Affairs will distribute 1,000 new Section 8 housing vouchers to reduce long waiting lists, according to Connolly's letter. "This is by far the largest release of vouchers into the system in recent history."

Connolly's letter drew a lukewarm response from the anti-poverty advocates and social service professionals Huttle invited to the hearing based on a NJ Advance Media report about the expired programs.

Some clients are in eviction proceedings, others are sleeping on friends' couches, while some have been allowed to remain in their homes pending an appeal, Serena Rice of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey testified. Too much time has elapse since the programs ran out six months ago.

"The state needs to act immediately to undo the harm that has been done to very vulnerable people," Rice said. "Advocates have been speaking with the department for months, and while we appreciate this dialogue and the steps that have been taken, people are homeless right now. We cannot wait for a perfect solution to be worked out in all the details."

Stuart Weiner from the Community Health Law Project, said he is concerned about letting county and local welfare agencies decide "whether to pay the rent or not." In the meantime, his office is trying to negotiate deals with landlords to keep people where they are until their appeal is heard by a state judge, or "until the state decides to pay the rent."

Last month, Catholic Charities from the Diocese of Trenton received 15 calls from Burlington County residents who "were identified as homeless as a result of this misguided policy change and oversight," said Associate Executive Director Joyce Campbell said.

They aren't any places to send these people, Campbell said. "And, we are expected to begin on January 1, 2016 – 16 days away with two holiday weeks in between.  Community providers have no idea as to how many, if any staff they will need to hire." 

"I have worked at Catholic Charities for almost 20 years and this is one of the most devastating policy changes that I have witnessed, and I know I am not alone in that," she said.

The department has allocated $1.16 million to for the case management programs started, with more money added according to demand, according to Connolly's spokeswoman Nicole Brossoie.

Huttle said she would continue to monitor the situation and "will try to help find some solutions to move people from temporary to permanent housing."

"For the department to say (the welfare directors will be) providing case management doesn't seem to be enough," she said. "We are adding to the homelessness in this state and we can do better than that."