NJ Spotlight

No one wants to be homeless, yet the New Jersey Department of Human Services is hampered in its efforts to help this vulnerable population by a rule put in place by the Christie administration that penalize those considered to have “caused” their own homelessness.

The department is pushing to eliminate that language. It is also proposing changes to some programs and implementing others outright. The goal: respond faster to those in need and provide housing assistance to individuals and families who are homeless or in danger of losing a home.

As part of this new push, the department is making helping people its priority, rather than following bureaucracy. Meanwhile, Gov. Phil Murphy has proposed a new government agency that would oversee initiatives having to do with homelessness statewide.

DHS Commissioner Carole Johnson, in a statement announcing the new policies last week, said they “ensure that our safety net is strong.”

“Too many individuals and families across New Jersey struggle to get on the strongest possible financial footing,” Johnson said. “The steps we are taking today will strengthen our ability to prevent and respond to the threat of homelessness. Most importantly, these changes will bring critical help to individuals and families at their time of greatest need.”

Murphy administration tackles homelessness

The changes meant to help those who need shelter or are in danger of becoming homeless align with other actions Murphy has taken to attack homelessness. As part of his budget address last month, Murphy proposed creating an Office of Homelessness Initiatives in the Department of Community Affairs to coordinate efforts to prevent and combat homelessness and expand access to housing options.

The most recent Point in Time Count of the homeless, for 2018, found more than 9,300 individuals were homeless in New Jersey, an increase of about 9 percent over the prior year. Many say this understates the number of people without a permanent home, because it is difficult to find everyone living on the streets.

Murphy already took one step to expand Emergency Assistance to the needy. Last year, he signed legislation extending by five years the length of time certain groups — the permanently disabled, those over age 60, the “chronically unemployable,” and those who care for a disabled dependent — can receive the aid. After initially vetoing it, Murphy is also expected to sign S-3586, which will allow most recipients of cash public assistance to be eligible for Emergency Assistance once every seven years to avert homelessness.

“Securing housing for a family is the first step in helping that family get back on their feet,” said Human Services’ Division of Family Development Director Natasha Johnson. “We will continue to look for opportunities to advance policies to prevent homelessness and protect our most vulnerable residents.”

Repairing NJ’s safety net

New Jersey consistently ranks as one of the most expensive states in which to live. Advocates complained that the Christie administration poked holes in the safety net, which includes emergency assistance payments for housing, childcare, and food, as well as cash assistance through Work First New Jersey, formerly known as welfare, to those with very low incomes.

The greatest changes announced by the Department of Human Services, which advocates for the homeless cheered, are meant to impact the awarding of Emergency Assistance to WFNJ participants. These benefits include essential food, clothing, shelter, and household furnishings; temporary rental assistance or back rent or mortgage payments; utility payments; transportation to search for housing; and moving expenses. In most cases, a person can get Emergency Assistance for a year, although that can be extended in certain circumstances.

DHS is issuing new guidance to county social services officials, who administer Emergency Assistance, to clarify that people who are in “immediate need” of help are eligible to receive aid right away, even before their eligibility for assistance has been determined, if they lack shelter or are about to lose their housing. The change will give up to 30 days of aid for food, clothing, or shelter to individuals and families while their application is reviewed.

Maura Sanders, chief counsel for public benefits at Legal Services of New Jersey, characterized the change as “very promising” and said it will help the state meet the requirements of the “immediate need” provision of the public assistance statute.

“The statute is clear that the emergency needs of individuals and families who are homeless or facing homelessness should be addressed without a delay, which can result in serious harm,” she said. “This new DHS clarification seeks to achieve that goal.”

Additionally, the department is proposing to revamp a rule that allows officials to deny Emergency Assistance to individuals who “caused their own homelessness.” DHS adopted this regulation just 16 months ago despite complaints at the time that it was unfair to deny someone aid under these circumstances, particularly if a person’s disability was the cause. State officials said officials were uncertain about implementing the rule, leading to inconsistent interpretations. They plan to revise the rule to more clearly define eligibility, including allowing those otherwise ineligible for Emergency Assistance to receive help for good cause.

“Current rules set a broad ‘fault’ standard and do not properly address the circumstances and needs of the family,” Sanders said, adding Legal Services is “hopeful that changes to these regulations will provide a less subjective standard and will eliminate barriers to assistance for the most vulnerable. Very few people choose homelessness; most who are without housing have been trapped by circumstances they cannot control. Changes to the Emergency Assistance regulations should make this recognition a cornerstone of the EA program.”

Coming to aid of young adults

DHS plans to revise another rule to make it easier for young adults to get help. Officials are going to propose eliminating the current requirement that some individuals seeking Emergency Assistance and other aid to prevent homelessness provide a copy of their parents’ tax returns to demonstrate that they are not claimed as a dependent. That has made it difficult for young adults in need to get help.

“Ensuring services for those in immediate need, especially repealing the unclear and hurtful ‘causing your own homelessness’ standard and supporting young adults at risk of homelessness will bring much-needed help to individuals and families when they need it the most,” said Staci Berger, president and CEO of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey.

A final change will let homeless families get a childcare subsidy before their eligibility is established. Typically, before a family can receive assistance, they have to provide documentation to prove their need. The new policy will give families experiencing homelessness up to six months of subsidies for childcare while they complete all the required paperwork. Helping families in need pay for childcare will take some of the financial pressure off them.

“This significant change will remove an additional barrier to employment for families overcoming crises,” Berger said. “We are very excited by these long-awaited changes that represent big steps forward in our fight against homelessness.”

Information about Emergency Assistance is available on the DHS website. The department also lists information about county social services agencies.

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