Finding social services for Camden’s undercounted, underserved homeless

BY David Cruz, Senior Correspondent |

Camden nowadays is all groundbreakings and ribbon cuttings. But poverty, and homelessness, and the dangers they bring can also be Camden, too.

“I was going to get a cup of coffee, went past Dunkin’ Donuts going to Crown [Chicken] and somebody got me from behind,” recounts Walt Buckley.

This is the second time he’s been jumped on the streets. The last time was in March, when he says someone beat him up and took all his money. While he was in the hospital, his apartment was flooded.

“I ended up five days in the hospital. I came back, the house was under water. They red-tagged it. Now, what do you do? I had no idea,” he said.

According to the annual Point-in-Time Count of the Homeless, the population in Camden County has held steady and is trending downward, from 675 in 2014, with 68 on the street. It’s down to 525 this year, with 84 out on the street. But those numbers only scratch the surface, says Shantel Garner, who coordinates the annual count in Camden County.

“We’re seeing more people but it’s HUD’s [Housing and Urban Development] definition of what’s being counted to show that we have a decrease in numbers,” she notes. “HUD is looking for the chronically homeless, which means you’ve been on the street for 12 consecutive months or more, or four times in a three-year period to total 12 months. And if you become homeless today or tomorrow, HUD isn’t counting those numbers, and that’s a lot of the numbers that we have, as well as the people that are couch surfing.”

Which is, as it sounds, someone crashing at a friend’s or family’s. Garner estimates that, if you count those people, the number could be as much as four times that, including at least 1,000 children on a list kept by social workers at the schools. Harold Heggan is out on parole for what he says was a trespassing violation, although records indicate he has conviction for aggravated assault. He’s at Cathedral Kitchen, where the county has set up a homeless service day, looking for some clothes, and a meal and a maybe a lead on a shelter. But mostly he welcomes the opportunity to be around people, a break from the solitude of his everyday life.

“I feel like no one cares,” he said. “I think, like, if I got hit by a bus and killed, I don’t think anyone would even care. My family, I don’t think they’d care. I lost my mother, my brother, my brother and my best friend pretty close together.”

Buckley says he’s trying to get his life back on track.

“I want to go into a house. It doesn’t have to be a house with a white picket fence. Just something, I have to be something wrong not to get a house, or an apartment, or a room or something. I don’t know what. I just need help. I just don’t know what I’m doing wrong,” he lamented.

New signs direct visitors to waterfront attractions. It’s about a mile and a half from Joseph’s House, a shelter where the beds are full everyday and the waterfront attractions may as well be a hundred miles away.


NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect new information.

Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multiplatform public media initiative that provides a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society. Major funding for this initiative is provided by the JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation.