(TRENTON) - A two-bill legislative package sponsored by Assembly Democrats Mila Jasey, Ralph Caputo, Jason O'Donnell and Valerie Vainieri Huttle to ensure emergency shelters provide shelter for individuals who are homeless, including those with mental illnesses who pose no safety threat to themselves or others, has received final legislative approval and now heads to the governor's desk.
The first bill (A-2937), sponsored by Jasey, Caputo, O'Donnell and Vainieri Huttle, prohibits emergency shelters for the homeless from refusing to provide shelter, or food and shelter, for a minimum of 72 hours, to an individual or family seeking theses services, unless the shelter is at its maximum occupancy level. Under current law, shelters must provide these services for a "limited period of time," which, under state regulations, means a minimum stay of less than 24 hours.
"Right now emergency shelters can only provide shelter for less than 24 hours, which means an individual that is homeless only has hours before they're right back on the street," said Jasey (D-Essex/Morris). "Extending the minimum stay to 72 hours gives them a couple more days of comfort. If there is capacity, then there is no reason to turn away a person who has no where else to go."
The bill also provides an exception in the event of emergency conditions, such as snow emergencies or excessive cold or heat. In the event of emergency conditions, emergency shelters, which have been authorized to provide shelter, or food and shelter, to individuals in excess of their licensed capacity, are prohibited from refusing to provide these services, for a minimum of 24 hours from the start of the emergency condition or for the duration of the emergency condition, whichever is longer, unless the shelters are at their licensed capacity plus any authorized excess capacity.
"The economy has made bad situations worse for many people who unable to find work have suddenly found themselves homeless after losing their homes," said Caputo (D-Essex). "For people in this situation, an extra couple of days of shelter can really help as they make other arrangements."
"Homelessness affects not just individuals, but families. I cannot imagine what it must be like to not have a home to go to, especially when there are children involved," said O'Donnell (D-Hudson). "If there is room, then we should be able to provide these families with the shelter they need."
"I understand space concerns, but if there are still beds available to accommodate people a little longer, then I don't see any reason not to," said Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen). "These emergency shelters not only provide a roof over their heads, but assistance that can help them get back on their feet."
The second bill (A-2938), sponsored by Jasey, Caputo and O'Donnell, requires the emergency shelters to admit persons with mental illness, unless they pose a danger to self, others or property.
"Sadly, homelessness and mental health issues often go hand in hand," said Jasey. "Turning people away because of a mental illness that poses no threat to others only exacerbates the problem."
"These emergency shelters are for people who are homeless. A mental illness that does not pose a safety threat to others should never be used against anyone in need of shelter," said Caputo.
"People with mental illness are stigmatized enough," said O'Donnell. "If these individuals are not a danger to themselves to others, they should not be denied a service that is meant to help them."
The bills (A-2937) and (A-2938) were approved by the Assembly by a vote of 78-0 and 75-0 respectively on June 20, 2013. Both bills were approved 40-0 by the Senate on June 25, 2012.