To solve the ongoing problem of family homelessness in NJ, ‘Let’s turn empathy into action’

Family Promise, an NJ-based nonprofit supporting those experiencing homelessness, will run Night Without a Bed Oct. 22, in which folks sleep in cars, tents and on floors to foster empathy and raise awareness for solutions.

At least 13,929 kids experienced homelessness in New Jersey during the 2018-19 school year— the last year data was reported to the U.S. Department of Education. That number is likely higher, though, as family homelessness isn’t necessarily visible. We don’t often get a glimpse of the family with kids in different homes, wherever they can find a bed. Nor do we see the family bouncing from shelter to motel to a relative’s house. The family living in the same home as two or three other families, sometimes in dilapidated homes, kids sleeping on the floor.

It’s heartbreaking. But a combination of factors—the end of the eviction moratorium, a dwindling stock of low-income, affordable housing, generational income inequality, and more—has led us to a situation where, nationwide, over 3 million children experience homelessness every year.

The effects are dire—children experiencing homelessness are up to nine times more likely to repeat a grade, seven times more likely to attempt suicide, and 42% more likely to drop out of school at some point. And these effects compound, perpetuating cycles of homelessness.

Homelessness is endemic in the U.S., and go to any community in this country and you’ll hear a bunch of suggestions on how to address it (as well as plenty of callous NIMBYers who’d rather not help). Yet, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. It requires a nuanced response that holistically addresses all the causes and challenges of homelessness, for all the people who experience it—families, veterans, those in impoverished communities, people struggling with mental health issues or substance abuse.

But there are organizations doing that work. Family Promise, based in NJ, provides innovative solutions to homelessness, including prevention, shelter and stabilization services. Every year, they run Night Without a Bed (Oct. 22 this year), where people sleep on floors, in cars or tents, anywhere without a bed, to raise awareness for family homelessness and to turn that awareness into action.

Geleen Donovan, executive director of Family Promise Union County, says the efforts to end family homelessness may look like the myriad programs the organization (and many others across the country) offer, but it must start with the will to do it. 

“I truly believe we all need radical compassion,” Donovan says. “I really think that most of our unique problems can be met with innovation and radical compassion.”

Donovan says she tends to use the term “housing refugee,” to refer to people experiencing homelessness because it alludes to the causes of homelessness—namely a lack of affordable housing options, and the poverty in which many experiencing homelessness live and which prevents them from accessing stable housing, transportation, education and more. It also refers to the growing number of people who have lost their homes due to natural disasters, from the wildfires out West, to Hurricane Ida, which displaced 500 families in Elizabeth alone.

The pandemic made access to affordable housing even more difficult. Though a moratorium on evictions helped many stay in their homes over the last two years, it ended this year, and since, eviction cases have, predictably, gone up. Donovan says there are 3,800 eviction cases in Union County alone.

Part of the problem is that some landlords are not willing to work with tenants on rent prices that are feasible, particularly in gentrifying areas, and if they are, may be unwilling to invest in the property to make it properly livable.

“We try to take a compassionate look at them as well because we do deal with smaller landlords,” Donovan says. “They need the money, they could lose their housing. What we’re really running into, which I never thought I would do in my whole career, people are moving into and staying in substandard housing because landlords aren’t making needed repairs and maintenance. … So they make it a very unlivable situation. We’re advising tenants, ‘How bad is it? Can you put a bucket under a leak?’ This is disgusting that we’re advising people like this because there’s such a shortage of affordable housing.”

Costs have been rising for housing. More than one in seven households pay more than half their income in housing, and home prices soared over 20% nationally during the pandemic, with a similar increase in rent prices. The National Low Income and Housing Association found that there is a shortage of 7 million low-income homes in the country, and that for every 100 low-income families, there are only 31 affordable homes in New Jersey.

It’s vital in the fight to end family homelessness to keep people in homes if they have them. Family Promise does this by offering rental assistance, utility support, landlord mediation and more, but they’re also part of the Eviction Diversion Initiative, which provides grants to courts to enhance their diversion programs and reform how they handle diversion cases. Any resource in this sphere is a massive boon—in eviction cases, only 3% of renters are represented in court, and thus understand the process and have someone in their corner, while 81% of landlords have representation. Predictably, landlords win most of these cases.

“Housing makes a lot of people money and [we can’t progress] until we can really equalize that notion that housing is a right with the people who want to make money on it,” Donovan says.

But failing efforts to stave off eviction, the effort to get folks into other homes faces unique challenges as well. If you’ve lived, well… anywhere, you’ve likely heard rumblings from community members about new affordable housing construction. People don’t want increased density in their communities, which is fair, but often the subtext is, we don’t want low-income people in our communities, which is straight-up horrible.

“I think people are against low-income housing because they think of the projects. People who live in the projects don’t like that either,” Donovan says. “You have to offer grace on both sides because we have to bring people together. I have always told my staff, or if I go out and talk to a group of people about what we’re doing, there’s always this persnickety person, and it’s a sick challenge for me that I want to turn that person into an ally for us, because sometimes they end up as some of our strongest allies.”

Design plays a part—creating affordable housing units that integrate into the community and have access to public transportation and recreational spaces unequivocally helps those living in the homes, and might make it easier for folks who don’t want affordable housing in their communities to swallow.

But so does cultivating empathy and understanding in the community. If people rail against affordable housing on the grounds of their home prices dropping (they won’t), or that the fabric of the community will change (it might, but probably for the better so let go of your pearls), then the counter-argument is, essentially, have a heart.

Family Promise is doing this, in part, by the Night Without a Bed campaign, but local affiliates are finding unique ways to bring together community members and those experiencing homelessness. The Union County branch recently launched The Open Table, which sets a person in need of assistance as the chairperson of a board and seven members provide resources and help on how to address myriad issues like accessing education or transportation. 

“It isn’t a mentorship program. That is condescending. This is companionship. This is, ‘I’m gonna walk alongside you and … we’ll figure this out together,’” Donovan says.

Family Promise is also working with church congregations to retrofit unused spaces into livable quarters—and there’s already work underway to turn an old carriage house at a church in New Providence into a space for low-income folks, among other examples.

Indeed, there are plenty of reasons for hope in what is ultimately a dire, depressing situation. Donovan can recall a single mother with six kids who were in need of a home and came to Family Promise. The organization put the family in temporary emergency housing in Plainfield, but the darndest thing happened. After the landlrods got to know the family, and after the parent received a Section 8 housing voucher, the landlords asked if they could rent directly (and affordably) to the family.

Stories like that show how when landlords and the broader community get to know people experiencing homelessness, they realize, well… they’re just people. Of course they are. 

“Nobody asks anything. It’s because they’ve come into the neighborhood like anyone else. No one knows they’re a homeless family. It’s incredible when you don’t group people,” Donovan says.

Prejudice has long hampered efforts to get and keep people in homes. State data reveals that people of color disproportionately experience homelessness compared to white people, in large part due to the historic practice of redlining—keeping people of color out of certain neighborhoods, and forcing them into others, by illegally denying funding.

While black people comprise only 12.4% of New Jersey’s population, they make up almost half of the homeless population. That historic prejudice compounds, too, and the solutions there are thorny, but necessary.

“It’s the people of color that have been frozen out of any kind of affordable housing,” Donovan says. “It’s going to take years for people to have equity across the board, especially when we have generational poverty … and that has very dire consequences on families and future generations as well.”

One way the problem can be addressed is for the state to use accurate numbers to define homelessness. Seems basic, but the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) uses narrow definitions and thus excludes low-income people and the agencies that shoulder the burden to support them. 

For instance, we get a general sense of the number of people experiencing homelessness through Point-in-Time (PIT) Counts, which track people accessing shelters and responding to surveys for a brief period of time every year. But that effort returns numbers far lower than what we know from other sources about people experiencing homelessness. The McKinney-Vento Act requires schools to ensure students experiencing homelessness graduate school and have access to resources. In doing so, they track the numbers of children experiencing homelessness, and they’re usually three times higher than any PIT Count.

There is an effort to pass the ​​Homeless Children and Youth Act, which would expand the definitions of homelessness using better data like that from McKinney-Vento so more people could access help when they need it.

It’s just one part of what is, clearly, a complex issue. While nuts-and-bolts work like that is done, the effort to change hearts and minds within communities continues, like with Night Without a Bed. While the hope is people gain empathy for those experiencing homelessness, Donovan says there also must be an effort to push people into action. They’ll do that by encouraging participants to share the dire information of daily homelessness on whatever platform they can. Empathy is a wonderful start, but more work remains.

“Let’s take it to the next step,” Donovan says. “Let’s turn empathy into action.”