Racial disparities and other troubling trends in NJ homeless count

More than 8,000 people—adults and children—are homeless in New Jersey, and a new annual report sheds light on who is experiencing homelessness, why, and how the pandemic affected their housing situations.

The annual Point-in-Time Count took place in late January this year—typically volunteers, shelters, local governments and others interact with those experiencing homelessness face-to-face, but, of course, the safety protocols in place because of the pandemic prohibited such interactions. Counters have, in the past, been able to get a better sense of those experiencing homelessness at in-person food drives, free haircut and shower stations, holiday group meals and more, but many of those services were cancelled or severely curtailed last year. So, instead, organizers relied on state databases of those currently in shelters and household surveys, and expanded the count to include the two weeks after the designated count day, January 26.

Because of the challenges of the pandemic, this year’s count did not include comparisons to homeless populations in years prior. Often, homelessness involves individuals and families couch surfing, living out of cars, in hotels or other non-permanent residences. That is, they’re not necessarily using aid resources, or “visibly” homeless, and thus not interacting with shelters and local governments… and thus not included in the count. 

Limitations notwithstanding, the count did include some notable findings. First, there’s a stark racial disparity in NJ’s homeless population. While black people make up 12.7% of the state population, they comprise nearly half of all individuals experiencing homelessness. By comparison, about 24% of the population identified as white, and 19% identified as Latino. 

Of the 8,097 homeless individuals counted on Jan. 26, about 1,500 of them identified as chronically homeless, and over 800 of them were unsheltered—that is, on the street.

About 2,600 people in the count were in families with children under the age of 18. 

Some of the subgroups in the homeless population include veterans (7%), domestic violence survivors (10.8%) and youth (8.7%), defined as people under the age of 24. About half of all included in the count reported living with some disability. 

The pandemic affected counters ability to accurately assess the homeless population, but it also affected how shelters and aid groups reach those in need, many having to cap entrance numbers into shelters or schedule times for meals, among other disturbances. The pandemic also impacted homeless numbers, with 10.5% of respondents saying their homelessness is a direct result of COVID-19.

All of this data must be used to identify those most at-risk for entering and staying in homelessness, and there’s an opportunity, with increased federal funding directed at homeless services due to the pandemic. Too, there’s a chance to work with those experiencing homelessness, and those who have in the past, to find effective solutions. 

“Solutions to end homelessness must be developed in partnership with individuals experiencing homelessness,” says Taiisa Kelly, CEO of Monarch Housing Associates, which helped coordinate the count. “We cannot begin to address the racial inequities in our systems and begin to identify effective solutions without creating space for collaboration with the communities we seek to serve.”