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Bergen County’s collaborative model reduces homelessness

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Key Takeaways

A New Jersey county has established a collaborative housing-first model that is making a difference in the fight to end homelessness.

Bergen County, N.J. was named the first community in the country to end, or reach “functional zero,” for chronic homelessness in 2017, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). People who are chronically homeless have experienced homelessness for at least one year or repeatedly while struggling with a disabling condition, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

“Functional zero” occurs when the number of people who come into the system every month is equal to or less than the number of people who go out of the system every month, according to Julia Orlando, the director of the Bergen County Housing, Health and Human Services Center.

Bergen County was also the first county in New Jersey to end veteran homelessness, according to HUD.

In 2008, the county received HUD funding and created a 10-year plan to end homelessness, Orlando explained. Part of the plan was to create a new homeless center. The idea for the center stemmed from interviews with 200 stakeholders who felt the county should consider a housing-first model and create a “one-stop” location where all services are offered in one building.

“Having a building where you can all work together and you’re not playing phone tag because you can do face to face and you can triage immediately, that’s a tremendous help,” Orlando said.

The housing-first model focuses on putting individuals into stable housing and providing them with services before requiring sobriety or mental health compliance, she said.

“That’s an important change over previous models because now you’re literally taking people off the street in whatever condition they’re in,” Orlando said.

The 27,000-square-foot Bergen County Housing, Health and Human Services Center opened in 2009. It is open 24 hours per day and owned by Bergen County, Orlando said, which has a shared services agreement with the Bergen County Housing Authority. The facility also has a drop-in center open twice per day, seven days per week that’s open to the public.

Orlando explained that the center is located in the county seat of Hackensack and provides for basic needs such as clothing, toiletries and food. It has 90 beds that can accommodate both males and females over the age of 18. In the winter, the center expands and can house 120 individuals.

The facility has provided nearly 300,000 people with shelter and has distributed over 675,000 meals since its opening.

Those who come to the shelter have access to a wide variety of services including a nutritional program that provides three meals per day. Medical services, veteran services and mail services are all located in the building.

“It gives them the services they may need to get themselves back on their feet and that is done in many different ways,” Bergen County Executive James Tedesco said. “To me, that’s the model that makes this completely different than many others that have tried different models.”

Other agencies, such as the Board of Social Services, help individuals enroll in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), obtain food stamps and deal with applying for welfare or Medicaid.

“People are obtaining their benefits much more rapidly here because they’re accessible right on site,” Orlando said.

The center provides services for document and ID recovery because many individuals experiencing homelessness have difficulties obtaining an ID or driver’s license, she said.

Tedesco said this approach is an “all-encompassing model.”

The Bergen County Housing, Health and Human Services Center has evolved over time with changing needs from the community. Orlando explained when the area experienced an uptick in heroin, the center received grant money to provide services for opioid addiction. Tedesco added that he thinks the mental health services and the addiction services are some of the most valuable services the center provides.

Since Tedesco took office, the county has tried to enhance the types of services to continue the “one-stop” approach.

“Even though we’re all different agencies and we all have different philosophies and different missions, we all agree on the one thing that’s consistently clear, which is our goal to house people,” Orlando said.

The county has been able to sustain the functional zero for chronic homelessness and for homeless veterans.

In an effort to maintain functional zero, officials hold at-risk meetings where they review a list of everyone who is homeless in the county to see who should be assigned housing based on their vulnerabilities, according to Orlando. Individuals can fill out a two-page form available at hospitals, jails and other locations in the community to get on the list.

On average, it takes around 64 days to connect a homeless individual with housing, Orlando explained. Specifically, for those who are chronically homeless and for veterans, the stay at the center is typically under 90 days.

When it comes to homelessness among veterans, Tedesco said the county works with developers and landlords to secure apartments and have available housing placements.

The county also works with support services such as Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) or Project of Assistance in Transition from Homelessness (PATH). Additionally, subsidies or vouchers such as the HUD-VASH vouchers, which combines HUD housing vouchers with VA supportive services, are used to place homeless individuals in housing, Orlando explained. Once an individual receives a housing placement, supportive services are provided.

Bergen County also uses a homelessness trust fund, which collects approximately $250,000 per year, according to Su Nottingham of the Bergen County Department of Human Services. The fund was established in 2010 and authorizes the county clerk to collect a $3 surcharge for documents like building permits or registrations for companies, among others.

For other counties hoping to create a similar model, Tedesco said the most important aspect is commitment. He added that bringing together county agencies and non-profit organizations has been helpful in reducing the number of individuals who identify as homeless.

“There’s many people out there that want to help, they just don’t know how or the way they’ve been asked to in the past just hasn’t been as effective,” he said.

Orlando advises counties to show the community the benefits of helping those who are homeless. After the center was built in Hackensack, the city went into a full-fledged revitalization and partnered with the center, Orlando said.

“Now, we have a community that embraces their services for the homeless,” she said.

The county plans to tackle youth homelessness next.

Tedesco established a Young Adult Task Force in September 2018. The task force includes a youth council which is headed by a young adult.

“I believe that the model we have if done correctly and replicated can be very successful with addressing this unfortunate problem,” Tedesco said. “We’re hopefully changing their lives, giving them a quality of life and giving them something to hope for in their life.”

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