Advocates, service providers, and impacted individuals are united in their frustration in response to Governor Christie’s May 2 conditional veto of legislation that would have modified the state’s Emergency Assistance (EA) program.
“The Christie administration has made homelessness in New Jersey far worse – not better,” stated Jeff Wild, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness. “Tragically, about a year ago, this administration launched a campaign to cut back on EA: the last resort for our most vulnerable adults and children, which serves many thousands of homeless statewide. This administration has reduced EA dramatically, as much as 40%, creating a crisis for NJ’s poorest, leaving men, women, and children out in the cold.”
The veto is consistent with action taken by the Department of Human Services in July 2015, which ended the practice of providing extensions for EA as a means of supporting housing security for the most vulnerable. That move caused an outcry from advocates and service providers who have since seen an increase in homeless individuals and families with no access to state support. The bill, in contrast, would have addressed the crisis by eliminating the arbitrary time limit on receipt of this assistance for four categories of recipients – recipients with long-term disabilities, those caring for disabled family members, recipients over 60, or the chronically unemployable. These groups are already exempted from the cash assistance time limit for the Work First New Jersey program (of which EA is one element).
“This veto is beyond disappointing. It is an action of callous disregard for the most vulnerable members of our state,” said Serena Rice, executive director of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey. “Societies are judged by how we treat the most vulnerable – the poor, elderly, children, and disabled. With this decision, the administration has walked away from that fundamental function of society, and left our safety net with a gaping, unnecessary, and short-sighted hole.”
The Governor’s veto message expressed an unwillingness to “fundamentally alter the purpose of this temporary program,” but Staci Berger, President and CEO of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, rejects that premise. “What is the fundamental purpose of the program if not to prevent homelessness? Arbitrary time limits for people who have no realistic prospect of finding affordable housing are a bureaucratic excuse to abandon people in desperate need.”
That is exactly the situation facing Beth Vigeant, an SSI recipient who has lost EA benefits and is scrambling to find housing before temporary Intensive Case Management benefits expire and she is left with nothing. "My income is $767 a month, and they are sending me to look at housing that costs more than $600 a month, before utilities,” explained Vigeant. “This is the ‘affordable housing’ that is out there, and even that housing is in drug infested communities that I know are not safe for my sobriety. That is why I still need EA. Because there is nothing else."
The current crisis is also creating an intense strain on the state’s homeless providers, as explained by Connie Mercer, Executive Director of HomeFront in Mercer County. “Agencies like ours that serve homeless and at-risk clients are struggling to stay open as our already tight budgets are stretched to the breaking point in the wake of government cuts. More importantly, the families that we see every day are struggling more than ever to make ends meet. The line at our door continues to grow and our families are desperate for a comprehensive approach from our state to strengthen the programs that serve them.”
It is the lack of a comprehensive approach that makes this retraction in the EA program so devastating.
“The fundamental challenge in NJ impacting the EA program is the lack of housing affordable to those on very low incomes with disabilities,” according to Gail Levinson, executive director of the Supportive Housing Association. “Permanent and more efficient housing solutions can be created for those living in poverty, but right now we must extend benefits to those who will otherwise fall into homelessness at a cost far greater than the EA budget.”
Frank Cirillo, Executive Director of the Mercer Alliance to End Homelessness, also reinforced the fiscal expediency of investing in Emergency Assistance as a component of a strong homelessness prevention system.
“In New Jersey’s Housing First and Rapid Rehousing models the EA program has proven to be a valuable tool in promoting permanent housing supported by case management. The veto of this legislation and the imposing of further restrictions on the access to EA seem, therefore, to be curious contradictions to recent State initiatives to further explore Housing First strategies, and the recommendations of the Governor's Interagency Council On Homelessness. Moreover, our Housing First model relies on a strong shelter and transitional housing system to act as essential first line responses to individuals and families experiencing homelessness.. The individuals and families served in our shelters are our most vulnerable and their link to humane care and decent housing should not be jeopardized by a draconian policy interpretation that limits access to EA.”
While the Governor’s veto is a setback other options can be explored. “This is not a partisan issue,” said Rice. “The legislation passed 37-0 in the Senate, because it is a common sense, simple way to stop vulnerable people from ending up on the street while we work toward a more effective and adequate permanent housing solution. The anti-poverty community is asking legislators and the leadership to review all of their options in finding a solution for what is truly a crisis situation.”