Once homeless, he now helps those still living on the streets

By Karen Yi | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
on January 25, 2017

NEWARK -- It was near midnight and Steven Taylor walked through Newark Penn Station with the familiarity of someone who knows all too well the feel and warmth of the walls and corners here. 

Taylor, 50, was once homeless. 

But on this night, Taylor approached those hidden beneath layers of clothes and bags, introducing himself as a case worker and asking if they'd fill out a survey for the state's annual homeless count.

Some backed away, further retreating into their respective corners; others warily agreed. 

"Let me step into your office here," Taylor told one gentleman, sliding two feet to his right to an imaginary space inside the station. He pulled out his clipboard and green leopard glasses.

"Where they are, that's their personal space," Taylor said, an outreach worker for Project Live, Inc. "It's a matter of courtesy and respect."

Every year, nonprofit groups like Project Live fan out across municipalities in New Jersey to count the homeless, painting a picture of who is living on the streets and why. 

Last year, at least 8,941 were homeless in the state -- 1,782 in Essex County. Final numbers for 2017 will be released in spring.

Counts are conducted annually during a 24-hour period by groups of case workers and volunteers who canvass train stations, airports, waterfronts and underpasses. 

The numbers are submitted to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for funding purposes. They also give a "thumbnail sketch" of what the needs are in the city, said Ross Croessmann, executive director of Project Live in Newark, whose team set out Tuesday night from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. 

'I know what it's like'

Taylor is unassuming and polite, often throwing his hands up in front of him to allay people's fears. 

"You're good," he says to those who are skittish around him. He remembers what it was like to be on the other side. 

Taylor was homeless for 10 years until he received supportive housing and mental health treatment. Until then, he mostly slept on a bench outside police headquarters.

"I used to be ashamed to share my story but I learned the more I share it, the more it benefits those in the same situation, it encourages others," he said. 

The team abides by a set of ground rules: if someone is sleeping let them be, if an individual does not want to participate, don't insist. And most importantly: stick together. 

Croessmann says about 50 percent of homeless people have a disability, usually a substance abuse or mental health problem. 

The average homeless person is an African American male between the ages of 45-55 with substance abuse or mental health problem, he added. 

Alkeam Jones, 38, said he lost his warehouse job and has been homeless on and off for the last five years. All he wants is a job and financial stability.

"It is what it is," he said. 

Finding a home

Croessmann says his organization and others are prioritizing finding homes for the homeless and setting them up with job training and employment.

"Our goal is to make not just a house but a home," he said. "Everyone deserves to live with dignity."   

But he says the annual counts are usually underreported: Volunteers can't access abandoned homes and not everyone wants to do the survey. 

"A lot of people feel like I gave you my information before and I'm still out here, what have you done for me?" said Project Live outreach coordinator Debra Underwood, 62, of Paterson. "I try to be friendly."

Wearing green and purple sneakers and silver hoop earrings, she coaxes homeless people to open up to her, treating them like an old friend. Underwood is seasoned: She's been doing this since 2005. 

"We got something that can help you out," she tells one homeless woman, as she hands over a bag of toiletries with a smile. 

Taylor, too, has been working the streets for the last 10 years as a caseworker.

"I remind myself of what I don't want to go back to," he said. When you're in that situation, "you think homelessness is your spot in life."  

But, he added, "No matter what they look like, smell like, act like, with the right treatment and opportunity, everybody has the potential to get back on their feet."

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