The new homeless: Underemployed Unable to help working poor, some shelters have empty beds

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The Star-Ledger (New Jersey)
By: Carmen Juri
November 14, 2010

Before the economic slump, Contina Wright and her family enjoyed the creature comforts of a middle-class lifestyle. Wright and her husband, a construction worker, spent money freely, vacationed, dined out regularly and had enough left over for savings.

"We had everything covered," said Wright, 38.

All that changed when the housing market plunged.

With construction jobs scarce, Wright became the sole breadwinner in a family of six.

Unable to pay bills, the family hit rock bottom last year and had to live at a homeless shelter for two months.

These days, Wright and her family are actually lucky they found a shelter for the underemployed.

More and more shelter-seekers are middle- to lower-class families, those who never imagined themselves needing this type of service. But beds are scarce for them because homeless shelters receive money to house those on public assistance, but get no government funding for those who do not.

"There are very few beds for people who are not on welfare," said Linda Flores-Tober, director of the Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless, an agency designated specifically for people not on welfare. "In New Jersey, there are beds open that stay open."

In some cases, homeless shelters can refuse to house a family who isn't receiving public assistance, Flores-Tober said.

The middle-class homeless are too "wealthy" for government assistance but too poor to make ends meet. This newest population may have one spouse collecting unemployment and one spouse working, but they still can't make ends meet.

"Now we have a lot of people not on welfare with nowhere to go," she said. "Shelters take those folks (on public assistance) because they get paid for those folks."

Sites that can house the underemployed receive government grants, she said. The homeless can seek out non-government-subsidized charities for help.

"But if the grant has run out, that bed goes empty and you can't get in it," Flores-Tober said. "That's like a disaster."

Charities that do provide housing for those ineligible for some shelters see the demand grow day by day.

For Catholic Charities, the shelter is a mission-driven program and the group relies on donations to stay afloat, said Wesley R. Moore, division director for housing and social concerns for Catholic Charities, Diocese of Metuchen.

"It's a priority for the diocese," he said.

The Salvation Army in Morristown has seen a 15 to 20 percent increase in the number of new people requesting aid, from food to medication to rental assistance, said Major Walter Droz.

Workers there were stunned this year when crowds lined up as early as 3 a.m. to register for help with food, toys and clothing in anticipation for Thanksgiving and Christmas. This year, the organization had planned to sign up 350 families, but ended up drawing the line at 433 and turning down 20, he said.

"We had people waiting for the doors to open at 8. I couldn't believe it," said Droz, adding that some waiting in line had volunteered at the Salvation Army in the past. "The line was two blocks long."

The Salvation Army's 23-bed shelter in Montclair receives three or four requests daily for accommodations, said Anna Marie Goglia, director of volunteer and family services. The Essex County organization also offers lunch three days a week and breakfast on Wednesday mornings. Breakfast attendees have increased from a few to a couple dozen.

These days, money is still very tight for the Wright family, but Contina Wright said she remains upbeat for her children.

"The face of homelessness has changed," said Wright, who has since found a more affordable apartment in East Orange. "It's the person who has a job and just can't afford to live."

Carmen Juri: (973) 392-1853 or cjuri@starledger.com

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This page contains a single entry by CFED published on November 15, 2010 3:57 PM.

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