Innovative pilot program houses chronically homeless in New Jersey

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

Gisselle Gonzalez knows being homeless isn’t easy. She’s 32 and lives hand-to-mouth, alongside the ever-present homeless population in Journal Square — just a fraction of Hudson County’s more than 800 homeless, according to last year’s official count.

“I go to the temple, the Indian Sikh temple. They give pretty good food every day so I won’t be not starving. Sometimes I stay outside, because there’s a lot of fights sometimes in the shelters,” Gonzalez said. “So I try to ask for help, as much as I can, you know.”

“Everyone deserves a place to lay their head at night. The stories that we hear about the homeless are unbelievable,” said Sen. Sandra Cunningham.

Wednesday, Hudson County launched a new pilot program that will use 25 rental vouchers from the state, combined with intense support services donated by two local hospitals, to find permanent housing for people who are vulnerable and chronically homeless. Hoboken University Medical Center will help five clients and Jersey City Medical Center will support 20.

“Many times, because of mental health issues — especially if they’re not getting treated — they won’t go into one of our supportive housing programs. So the first step for us, for example, might be somebody who’s living on the street,” said Jersey City Medical Center president and CEO Joseph Scott. “Make sure that they’re keeping their appointments, taking their medications, then all of a sudden they understand the need to go into supportive housing.”

The program will spend about $25,000 per client per year. It’s called “Familiar Faces,” because the chronically homeless often are familiar to cops, commuters, and neighbors.

“They’re familiar faces. These are people we went to high school with. These are people we eat in restaurants with. These are people that we know their moms and their dads, so we’re helping ourselves when we’re helping them,” said Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise.

And saving money. Chronically homeless don’t just stay in shelters. They often make repeat trips to jail or to the emergency room. A separate cost analysis from Hudson County showed hospital and shelter costs decreased by $398,000 annually when the county helped 25 homeless clients find supportive housing for a year.

“Without permanent housing, where they can be stabilized and get the supportive services they need, even just a handful of individuals on the street or in the shelters can become very expensive,” said DeGise.

“What we are announcing here in Hudson County will be transformative for many peoples’ lives,” said Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver, who also serves as the commissioner of the Department of Consumer Affairs.

Jersey City Medical Center has already identified 20 applicants for the Familiar Faces program, and the five other slots will probably fill up fast. Sponsors hope it’s so successful, it becomes a model for the nation.