Bergen County’s Housing, Health & Human Services Center
by Kate Leahy, New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness
In October, the Bergen County Housing, Health & Human Services Center celebrated its fifth anniversary. The Hackensack-based program provides a full continuum of housing services including homelessness prevention, temporary shelter and permanent placement. The program’s Director, Julia Orlando, focuses on collaboration and a housing-first approach to shelter, which has led to tremendous success: the Center has housed over 700 of its formerly homeless clients, referred to as “guests,” and of these, about 20% were at one time considered chronically homeless.
Collaboration Is Key to Success
Collaboration began before construction. A strong partnership between visionaries for the Center and senior administrators at the County level was key to getting the project off the ground. For decades there had been significant opposition from city officials who were concerned it would attract too many homeless people from other areas. It was the county executive who was able to get things moving by using county bonds to finance the project, allowing the county to circumvent many of the city approvals that would have been needed to get federal and state funds.
County officials and others recognized that establishing relationships with government agencies would be critical. Ultimately, they were successful in bringing the mayor, the City Council, local business associations, the Board of Social Services, and others to support the Center. To avoid the tensions that commonly arise from proposing to build a shelter in a residential neighborhood, they chose a location near government offices and downtown businesses.
One-Stop Location for Services from Many Providers
Relationships with local non-profits were also fostered long before construction was complete. The county hired a consultant, Clark LaMendola, who interviewed stakeholders throughout Bergen County to determine what kinds of services were most needed and to get commitments from groups to provide them. LaMendola emphasized that creating a one-stop location for homeless services would be key to reducing homelessness. Today, onsite services include case management, housing placement, employment counseling and vocational training, medical screening, mental health and substance abuse counseling, legal aid, veteran’s services, HIV/AIDS counseling, Alcoholics Anonymous, and nutrition services.
Of the services offered, placement into permanent housing is seen as the number one priority. From the Center’s inception, the “housing first” model has been a key tenet: provide housing without pre-conditions. This contrasts to other models that require a person to be substance-free and pass other criteria before qualifying for housing. As Orlando notes, “When you’re worried about where your next meal is coming from or where you’re going to sleep, you can’t work on finding employment or addressing other issues necessary to get yourself back on your feet.”
From the beginning, Orlando recognized the importance of thoughtful design and the Center’s beautiful, 27,516 square foot Spanish-style building reflects a deep respect for the Center’s guests and service-providers.
On-site offices for service providers: Satellite offices were constructed so that many partner agencies could have free office space in the Center, each a few days per week. These shared, flex-style offices have phones, printers, and privacy to meet with guests.
Design as a shelter, not a home: While Orlando is insistent on making the Center safe and clean, she is also wary of making things too comfortable and running the risk that guests would never want to leave. Her experience working in supportive housing in New York City had shown her the need to keep at the forefront the end goal of moving-on to housing. Thus, the Center is designed to be safe, bedbug-free, but not too comfortable; for example, common areas are spartan, with function only furniture and minimal furnishings.
The basis for the Housing Center’s rules is based on the philosophy that this is a shelter not a home. “Just because it’s a shelter, doesn’t mean there are no rules,” Orlando explains. For example, guests must be out of rooms during the day, either working, looking for housing, in classes or another activity in the service delivery area. “It’s all about incentivizing. If you want to sleep late on a Sunday, you can do so in your own apartment.”
Community meetings are held monthly where all of the guests are invited to share feedback and report any issues they might be having. Orlando notes, “When the biggest complaint is that the water in the shower is too hot, we know they’re doing ok and that the really important things are getting addressed.”
Advice from the Center’s Director
Julia Orlando recently represented Bergen County at the White House for participating in the National 100k Homes Campaign recognizing their success in housing Bergen County’s most vulnerable and chronically homeless population. We asked her for some advice to shelters and other New Jersey counties. In her response she highlighted the following:
For more information on the Bergen Housing, Health & Human Services Center, and for how to contact Julia Orlando, please click here.
 Cardwell, Diane. (2009, December 11). New Jersey Shelter Gets Built. The New York Times, pp.NJ10 NY Edition
 South, Todd. (2014, October 8). County homeless services center in Hackensack celebrates five years. The Record.
Cultivate the support of county government. The importance of a county government that is truly committed to reducing homelessness cannot be understated. Not only has the local government supported the Center from the start, but Orlando is actually an employee of the Housing Authority of Bergen County. She notes that attaining the support of local government and housing authorities, while oftentimes challenging, is critical.
Coordinate services. The creation of a one-stop location with a range of services offered by different providers has been key to the Center’s success. Orlando noted that if providers within counties can pool resources and target their needs, they could potentially see better outcomes.
Gather good data. Effective data collection and management is a key component to a county or CoC’s ability to end homelessness in its community. “Good data helps us know what we need to ask for and what’s possible,” Orlando notes. Through her participation in the national, 100K Homes Campaign, she has seen how data can drive results and help provide counties with a stronger foundation from which to make requests.