A former governor goes rogue on coronavirus | Editorial

Posted Apr 05, 2020

Let it be known: Jim McGreevey is breaking the law, and he is not ashamed of it.

He’s doing it to save lives. Our state is releasing as many low-risk jail inmates as it can before this virus explodes behind the wall.

Another 9,000 inmates routinely get out every month, and some may be sick already. When they have no place to go for food, healthcare or shelter, it puts us all in danger. They’ll infect more people on the street, in the stores, on buses and trains.

So the former governor, who runs a statewide re-entry program, has been stowing as many as he can in the basements of churches, nonprofits, anyplace willing to take them in. There’s no shortage of empty buildings these days. And he’s not waiting for permission.

“We’re placing people illegally into churches just to provide for warmth and shelter,” he told us. “We are doing it today.”

The homeless, with no place to self-quarantine, are among the most vulnerable to the virus and can drive new outbreaks. Yet their legal options for shelter are more limited than ever. If you’ve got a fever, you can no longer get into most shelters. Halfway houses are on lockdown.

These people need to sleep somewhere. Former Gov. Chris Christie waived regulations to allow churches to become shelters after Hurricane Sandy, and now, Gov. Phil Murphy should do the same, with public health workers to monitor and carefully separate those with symptoms.

The other challenge is getting them back on their feet. You can’t even get a state photo identification right now, since Motor Vehicle Commission offices are closed. And without one, you can’t access food stamps, welfare or Medicaid.

If you’re released with symptoms for coronavirus, and you don’t have effective Medicaid, you can’t consult a doctor or have a prescription filled.

This is a struggle even for those who’ve been out a while. In a narcotics anonymous meeting this week, 40 out of 42 members had just lost their jobs, McGreevey said.

One re-entry client, Kevin Goode, age 56, is struggling to keep a roof over his head after being laid off from his part-time gigs at the Seaside Heights boardwalk and as a dishwasher. “It feels like I was just thrown back to when I first got out again,” he said.

He did manage to get in touch with social services for temporary housing assistance, but “they’re inundated with people.”

We heard the same from Matthew Maikis, 32, who had re-enrolled in college, but has now lost his income from construction work. He called a food bank, but can’t go, because he just got tested for coronavirus. And he applied for food stamps and was supposed to have a phone appointment, but never got the call.

“Everything’s backed up,” he said. “It’s not happening quick enough. I can’t reach them, that’s the biggest thing.”

Instead of adding thousands to this backlog, we need to start doing this stuff inside jails and prisons, before people get out. An executive order from Murphy or his Attorney General could require the necessary state identifications to be issued prior to release, along with a completed application for food stamps, Medicaid, welfare or housing assistance.

Much of this could be done in a single day inside the walls, McGreevey says. And it could save countless lives on the outside.

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