In conjunction with the census, 43 New Jersey communities hosted hospitality fairs for the people being counted. One such event, at the Trenton YWCA, offered homeless participants information on welfare and food stamps, housing, substance abuse treatment and mental health services, and provided free vision and blood pressure screenings, dental evaluations, massages, and haircuts. Free coats, shoes, canned foods and books were quickly snatched up.
Tarry Truitt of the Mercer Alliance to End Homelessness said this is the first year New Jersey has had the fair, called Homeless Project Connect. Advocates for the homeless thought linking the fair to the census would increase participants in both.
The idea seemed to work.
By 10 a.m., the YWCA was bustling with homeless people, who were to check off a box next to each agency they received information from before returning their census card and getting a gift. By noon, 262 census cards had been returned, and all the giveaways were gone.
Monique Kidd, 23, who calls city streets home, said she made an appointment with a housing advocate she met at the fair to see about finding an affordable apartment. She and partner Daryl Cheston, 43, said they had been unable to find a place to live for about a year. Cheston sported a newly trimmed goatee, courtesy of Donte Greenfield, a barber at Clippers and Sheers, who gave free cuts and trims throughout the morning.
Alice Battle, 66, has been living at the city’s Rescue Mission since a mix up over rent payments resulted in her eviction.
She clutched a shopping bag filled with shirts, a blanket and Beanie Babies, but said she didn’t get what she really came for: A long coat.
Tears rolled down Battle’s face as she talked about her situation, saying she is too old and too frail in the legs to be shuffling around the city in constant search of shelter and food.
“I am a registered voter, I’ve never committed a crime and I don’t think I should have to live like this,” she said.
Aliceann Kroesen of Matossian Eye Associates had seen about 30 patients in the first three hours of the fair. Many, she said, told her they wore glasses but had lost their last pair and could not afford new ones. She wrote down their prescription and recommended they go to a dollar store for a pair of magnifiers.
In Camden, social worker William Outlaw’s census-takers walked along a dicey area of this impoverished city, finding 56 homeless between midnight Wednesday and 5 a.m.
About a dozen of them poured out of abandoned home being used as a crack house, he said, grateful to take up the offer of free flu shots.
Outlaw’s group also found people sleeping in the Walter Rand Transportation Center and in cars in a junkyard.
Results of this year’s count are expected around the end of February. In 2005, they counted about 11,000 homeless in New Jersey, about 900 of whom are in Mercer County.