Imagine that you are a single mother working two minimum wage jobs. Every month you have to juggle payments for rent, utilities, child care, car, insurance, gas, food, medicine, and clothing. One emergency – sickness causing you to miss work, divorce, death of a loved one, job loss – can upend your balancing act. It can be hard to really understand what that monthly, or even daily struggle can feel like, but a unique resource to help enter the experience of struggle is provided by the online game called “Spent,” developed by the Urban Ministries of Durham, North Carolina. http://playspent.org.
New Jersey Needs More Investment in Prevention. New Jersey has two programs — Homeless Prevention Program (HPP) and Social Services for the Homeless (SSH) — that help prevent homelessness among the working poor and those not eligible for welfare. These two programs provide emergency short-term assistance for working families that might otherwise lose their homes. The economic crises that can lead to homelessness vary, so these programs offer flexibility in the kind of help they can provide, including payments for rent, security or utility deposits, utility payments, or emergency food, as well as limited case management when a working family needs help.
Just this past Friday, Governor Christie released the Final Report of the Interagency Council on Homelessness. One of the important recommendations of that Report is to expand Social Services for the Homeless to prevent individuals and families from becoming homeless.
Why is Help Needed for Working Families? As a recent article in the New York Times highlighted, our low wage structure means that many workers – cashiers, home health care aides, food service employees – can only get through the month by relying on public assistance such as food stamps and Medicaid,. For low wage working families like these, HPP and SSH are the only programs New Jersey offers to make sure that an emergency doesn’t lead to homelessness. The proposed state budget would provide a combined total of just over $21.4 million between the two programs, an amount that has been virtually stagnant since the 2012-2013 fiscal year. The flat funding of these programs year after year – when inflation and expenses have increased -- means that there is less money to help people each year.
Preventing Homelessness is Compassionate. Sometimes we see individuals who are homeless and think “this could never happen to me.” But in reality, it's not as hard as you might think to end up without a roof over your head. In fact, many people are one step away from financial misfortune that could leave them homeless, especially in New Jersey where almost a third of our residents live with incomes that fall below the state’s high cost of living, unemployment is high, and we are severely lacking in affordable homes for very low-income renters. Sometimes low wage earners who experience a crisis can stay with family or friends to avoid homelessness, but when that is not an option we need a safety net to prevent homelessness.
Preventing Homelessness is Fiscally Responsible. Using tax dollars to prevent homelessness is cost-effective in the short and long-term. The dollars we use for short-term assistance to working families to prevent homelessness is a wise investment because it is much less expensive than providing shelter and services to families after they become homeless. For example, the per night cost to stay in a shelter or motel is $50-85, adding up into the thousands over the course of a month or two, and much higher than helping a family with rent to stabilize them for the same period.
Moreover, homelessness is extremely traumatic, especially for children, with resulting human and economic costs for many years. Having a home is the bedrock of our security and safety. By investing in homeless prevention, we invest in the mental, physical, and emotional health of the next generation.
End Homelessness by Preventing Homelessness: In New Jersey, there is bi-partisan support for cost-effective solutions and wise investments of our tax dollars. We can prevent homelessness . . . put the money where it should be!
By Deb Ellis, Executive Director of the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness