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“Economic Discrimination” Undermines Homeless Relief, Warns Tent City Founder

The struggle to resolve homelessness issues in Ocean County and elsewhere is compounded by a growing gap that leaves low-wage earners beyond the reach of federal aid, but short of self-sufficiency, says Lakewood Tent City Minister Stephen Brigham.

Minister Stephen Brigham (CNN)
Minister Stephen Brigham (CNN)

He brought his concerns, along with several dwellers in the enclave as examples of his point, to Ocean County Freeholders at this week’s public meeting.

The millions of federal dollars that the county allots to scores of social service programs each year is well-documented. And, for many, they work well.

Yet, Brigham told them, all it takes is an aggregate income of about seven dollars an hour to place entry-level job holders beyond applicable federal guidelines. “But it costs $24 an hour to survive…in Ocean County,” he continued, “for a one-bedroom apartment, a used automobile and basic necessities of life.”

He urged the board to take another look at the Homeless Trust Fund concept now employed in less than half the counties in New Jersey. It’s a three-dollar fee that is tacked onto the cost of filing mortgages, deeds and other documents in the offices of County Clerks.

Ocean County Freeholders take the position that it might be called a fee, but it’s a tax, and they’ve vowed to impose no new taxes on homeowners.

Without contesting the amount of money that county officials obtain and allocate, Brigham exhorted them to think about spending efficiencies.

“We’re spending $1,500 a month on a hotel room to house a homeless person,” he said. “We can’t spend $3…whether it’s a tax, or whether it’s a fee on top of these applications…This is penny-wise and pound-foolish.”

Board members stoically heard him out without comment. After the meeting, speaking to WOBM News, Freeholder John Kelly considered Brigham’s points.

Ocean County Freeholder John Kelly
Ocean County Freeholder John Kelly (Ocean County Freeholders)

He acknowledged that the answer has roots in the public and private sectors. “We have to create a climate that allows people to get a job that gives them the ability to earn the dollars they need,” he offered.

Kelly also conceded that Washington lawmakers have the responsibility of effective policy. “In my opinion, I think Congress ought to look at whether that income level is too low,” he said. “We ought to be encouraging people to go to work, and at the same time, still being able to assist them with basic living costs.”

But driving that kind of message to the Beltway, Kelly warned, is easier said than done. Vertical communication in the upward direction is not automatic.

“Here’s the problem: That’s not within the jurisdiction of the Board of Chosen Freeholders,” Kelly replied. “These are federal programs. They are monies given from the federal government through the state, to the county Board of Social Services. Then they have to live within the regulations and rules set forth by the federal government.”

On January 29, counties throughout New Jersey will place social service workers in various spots within their borders for Project Homeless Connect, which informs the national Point In Time “snapshot” of how many people are living without housing. Homeless dwellers who reach the sites get basic supplies and information about support programs.

In Ocean County, sites include the Hope Center and Ocean County Hunger Relief in Toms River, Macedonia Baptist Church and the Ocean County Library in Lakewood, King of Kings Church in Manahawkin, and Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Seaside Heights.

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