Home for the holidays

With the holidays fast approaching, I know I speak for all my colleagues at The Observer when I wish all our faithful readers, subscribers and advertisers the very best of New Year greetings.

And, if we can manage to take a breather from frenzied, last-minute holiday shopping expeditions, let’s also consider those among us who are less fortunate, those who’ve fallen on hard times and are still struggling to stay afloat.

I’m thinking of the families in Kearny and elsewhere, doing all they can to meet obligations for basic necessities, whether it’s managing to keep a roof over their heads with monthly rent or mortgage and utility payments, medical bills, food and clothing.

But it’s certainly shelter that’s got to be at the top of the list because without that, you’ve got nothing. Living in a car, on the street or in an emergency shelter (assuming you can find one), you’re at the mercy of the elements or those who prey on others.

Homelessness can only lead to instability at best and degradation at worst. And if children are involved, the potential for harm is heightened even more.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness, a nationwide advocacy group whose mission is to prevent homelessness, reports that, “In January 2014, there were 578,424 people experiencing homelessness on any given night in the United States.

“Of that number, 216,197 are people in families, and 362,163 are individuals. “

About 15% of the homeless population – 84,291 – are considered ‘chronically homeless’ individuals, and about 9% of homeless people – 49,933 – are veterans.”

These figures are based on “point-in-time counts,” which are conducted by volunteers in each community on a single night in January every other year. The U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development requires communities to submit the data to HUD to qualify for federal homeless assistance funding.

Obviously, a lot of people end up being homeless because they can’t afford the rents or property taxes being charged in their communities and there’s a lack of “affordable housing” where they live.

Here in New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie – who could be in a position to dictate national housing policy by 2017 – hasn’t demonstrated much concern for helping the homeless in the Garden State. In fact, he has pushed for the dismantling of the N.J. Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) which had mandated that developers set aside a certain percentage of dwelling units to accommodate those with lower incomes or donate a one-time payment to a community’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

Since 2010, when Christie issued an executive order to squash COAH, the council has been rendered impotent and enmeshed in litigation.

At the same time, the Christie administration has loosened building, zoning and environmental regulations to help expedite construction of big ticket housing developments, along with a smattering of some “affordable” projects for older folks.

Recent examples are the newly completed 15-unit Harrison Senior Residence and the senior citizen building with 137 apartments now under development in Belleville.

While the economy may be showing signs of recovery, the National Alliance points out that, “homelessness is often described as a ‘lagging indicator,’ meaning it takes time for economic and housing trends to impact trends in homelessness.”

National commentators note that while the percent of unemployed may have dropped in the last year, based on jobless claims filed, that may likely mask the fact that many people have simply given up looking for work and, therefore, remain uncounted.

While the Alliance acknowledges that the number of homeless counted fell from 633,782 to 610,042 between 2012 and 2013, does that offer much consolation to those still out there pounding the pavement?

I can reliably report, just by driving to and from Jersey City and Kearny, having seen more people begging along the road at the convergence of Rts. 7 and 1&9 in the past few years. Initially, I would see the same individual who would sleep under the overhead highway. Of late, however, I have seen increasing numbers – men and women – walking somberly and politely alongside cars stopped at the traffic light, hoping for a handout.

When I present an “offering,” it is invariably accepted with a humbling response of “God bless you!” and “Drive safe!” – a fitting greeting for any season. Even better are the words from Dickens’ creation, Tiny Tim, when he exclaims:

“God Bless Us, Everyone.”

– Ron Leir 

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