The Assembly Human Services Committee on Thursday approved an expansive seven-bill package - spearheaded by Committee Chair Valerie Vainieri Huttle and sponsored by Assembly Democrats Daniel Benson, Elizabeth Maher Muoio and Raj Mukherji - designed to reduce homelessness and help New Jersey residents get back on their feet.
In December, Vainieri Huttle and members of her committee visited the Bergen County Housing, Health and Human Services Center, which provides a 24/7, year-round continuum of housing services designed to abate homelessness. Following the visit, the committee held a special hearing to receive testimony on current state programs designed to target homelessness, as well as effective, new strategies that could be implemented to further prevent and reduce homelessness in New Jersey. The majority of the bills approved today were born out of these efforts.
"The descent into homelessness can happen rapidly for a number of reasons, but one thing we've learned is that the climb out can be arduous to near-impossible without a helping hand," said Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen). "We've spent nearly the last six months examining the issue to find ways that we can maximize state resources so that they have a real and transformative impact on the lives of homeless residents in our state."
The first bill, sponsored by Benson, Vainieri Huttle, Muoio and Mukherji would:
- A-4406: Provide emergency assistance, typically in the form of rental assistance, to individuals or families who are homeless or in a temporary living arrangement due to imminent or demonstrated domestic violence that imperils their health and safety.
"There have been many times when victims of domestic violence have been denied emergency assistance because they voluntarily left a job where their abuser could find them or failed to plan for substitute housing - situations that are typically out of their control, especially for many who have limited means," said Benson (D-Mercer/Middlesex). "Our number one priority should be ensuring their safety and getting them back on their feet and that's what this bill will do."
"This legislation is intended to ensure that victims of domestic violence receive support from the emergency assistance program, even if they must depart their home abruptly and without adequate time to ensure compliance with other program requirements," said Muoio (D-Mercer/Hunterdon). "More often than not, that is the case and we need to make sure we're accounting for that."
"When a domestic violence victim makes the decision to flee their home and their abuser the circumstances are usually dire," said Mukherji (D-Hudson). "They often don't have the luxury of time or the financial means to plan for other accommodations. Knowing they have access to emergency assistance may help some victims escape a dangerous or even deadly situation."
The remaining bills, sponsored by Vainieri Huttle, would:
- A-4765: Require the Department of Community Affairs (DCA) to continuously maintain an open enrollment period to submit pre-applications for rental assistance under the federal Housing Choice Voucher Program in order to ensure that applicants do not lose the opportunity to be placed on the waiting list simply for missing a short window of time that the department offers.
- A-4766: Provide temporary rental assistance for individuals who are eligible for emergency assistance and need financial assistance to stay in their own home, due to temporary conditions.
- A-4767: Require emergency shelters for the homeless to provide shelter to a person for a minimum of 72 hours, regardless of whether the person is enrolled in a local, state, federal, or private assistance program, or receiving any other services or benefits. The bill is designed to combat reports that some individuals have been turned away from shelters because they are not enrolled in assistance programs.
- A-4768: Expand the list of vulnerable populations that cannot be refused access to an emergency shelter to include individuals who: (1) are drug or alcohol dependent; (2) not in compliance with a prescription medication regimen; or (3) have consumed alcoholic beverages off the premises of the shelter; unless there is reason to believe the person poses a danger to self, others, or property.
- A-4775: Would limit prosecution, and allow expungement, for certain minor trespassing offenses if it was found to be due to homelessness.
- AJR-149: Express the state's strong support for the strategies and core components of rapid rehousing programs as a way of combating homelessness.
"This bill package targets a broad range of issues that were brought to our attention," added Vainieri Huttle. "By providing funding for eligible individuals to stay in their current residence, the state can prevent unnecessary homelessness, maintain the family unit, and be fiscally responsible. By easing restrictions on emergency shelters, we can get people off the streets and connected to vital assistance programs. By creating a pathway for individuals to amend their criminal record for minor offenses due, in part, to their homelessness, we can help them obtain employment, leading to housing security. Cumulatively, it's my hope that these efforts will help create a pathway to stability and self-sufficiency."