In Spite of a Law Requiring NJ Counties to Provide Shelter, Many Will Still be Found Out in the Cold by Volunteers Conducting Annual Count of the Homeless Tonight
January 24, 2018– Roseland – As teams of volunteers across New Jersey's 21 counties brave the cold tonight to help in the annual, state-wide Point-in-Time Count of the homeless, they will find many individuals and even families who are forced to spend the night outdoors, trying to keep warm under bridges, in abandoned buildings, in the woods and in many other locations unsuitable to human habitation, particularly in what are likely to be below-freezing temperatures. According to NJ's Code Blue law, passed in May of 2017, on the coldest nights so far this winter, these people should all have the opportunity to be indoors in shelters and warming centers required to be open to all when temperatures reach 25 degrees Fahrenheit (or 32 degrees with precipitation).
As the law was written, Emergency Management personnel from each county are required to create a Code Blue plan, essentially preparing for a public emergency as they would a flood or other natural disaster situation. And indeed, for people who are experiencing homelessness, freezing temperatures are as much an emergency as Superstorm Sandy was for so many New Jersians.
In spite of the Code Blue law and the extreme cold weather so far this winter, very few counties have prepared and implemented formal plans as the law requires, leaving our most vulnerable neighbors at risk. Some counties such as Ocean and Monmouth for example, rely almost entirely on relatively small, volunteer organizations to provide shelter and warm respite from the cold. While these organizations are doing incredible work, providing desperately needed services, their scope is generally limited and cannot accommodate the entirety of the counties' unsheltered homeless, a number which has been on the rise throughout the state over the past several years.
As documented on the front cover of the Asbury Park Press on Saturday, a man who had been living in a makeshift shelter in the woods in Neptune, NJ on a below-freezing night last month was found dead after falling into a fire which he'd been sitting next to, presumably to keep warm. The man suffered from chronic health problems and the cause of death is yet unknown. What we do know though, is that had he been inside, according to a range of studies tracking the health of the homeless, his chances at improved health outcomes would have very likely increased dramatically. And unfortunately, he is not the only homeless NJ resident we know of who has died out in the cold so far this winter.
In some cases, counties themselves have done little more than provide a list of warming centers and phone numbers on a website, a tool too often inaccessible and not helpful to the many experiencing homelessness who lack transportation and the internet. In order for the law to be effective, coordinated outreach and transportation need to be a significant component.
Fortunately, there's an easy step the new governor could take now, without too much effort: he could open state park buildings, unused in the winter months, and/or national guard armories as warming centers. This action on the governor's part, while creating more available resources for those left out in the cold, could also set the moral tone to pressure counties and municipalities to do more to ensure all New Jersey residents have a warm place to stay on the coldest winter nights.