So the homeless know they count

This was in today’s Star-Ledger and provides coverage on counties across the state. To read the full article click here.

So the homeless know they count
Volunteers spend a day tallying their numbers while offering comfort and hope

Friday, January 26, 2007

BY ELIZABETH MOORE

Star-Ledger Staff

For Anthony Hawes, home is the cold ground near Newark’s Penn Station. But lured by the offer of a hot meal and a haircut, he found himself yesterday among hundreds of other homeless people in a city roller rink that, for one day at least, was transformed into a one-stop service center.

They found free clothing and blankets, toiletries and backpacks, medical care and job counseling. And if they cared to wait a bit, they might have gotten a manicure.

In return, the homeless answered a few survey questions, allowing themselves, in a sense, to be counted.

Similar scenes played out across New Jersey yesterday, part of a new strategy in the tricky task of putting a number to the state’s homeless population. The count, performed every two years, has typically been carried out by legions of volunteers who fan out across communities, seeking the homeless wherever they can be found.

While that kind of outreach is still performed, the idea of the latest count, the most ambitious ever launched in the state, is to bring the homeless to the volunteers, at the same time providing clothing, food and services that people who live on the streets desperately need.

Every county in the state participated in this year’s census of the homeless, which helps determine the size of assistance grants handed out by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The last count, in January 2005, showed 10,713 homeless people in the state, a figure advocates say is artificially low. They estimate more than 20,000 people are homeless in New Jersey on any given day.

It will be several days before the results of yesterday’s count are available, but officials said the effort appeared to make a difference.

“We won’t know until we get actual numbers next week, but it seems to have been successful,” said Lisanne Finston, executive di rector of Elijah’s Promise soup kitchen in New Brunswick, one of the participating groups. “In terms of raising awareness about the programs out there and getting folks to fill out surveys, it’s been better than any other year.”

Hawes, who spends his nights under a bridge, approved of the setup at Branch Brook Park.

“This was a wonderful feat,” he said. “I got food. I got registered. I took the survey.”

By late afternoon, more than 700 people had registered at the Newark roller rink, and more than 2,000 meals had been served, said Teresa Ruiz, a spokeswoman for Essex County, which sponsored the event.

Registrants were given a free backpack and were allowed to pack up food, winter clothing, toothbrushes and toiletries spread out on the tables.

Tranell Smith of Irvington closed her beauty shop, Beyond the Mirrors, and offered free haircuts and manicures to those who showed up.

“I want to make them feel good,” Smith said. “Looking good makes you feel a little better.”

At the Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless, more than 100 people from Union County — some homeless, others simply poor — streamed in and took turns at booths offering a host of services, including free hair cuts, eye exams and HIV tests.

“And we gave out gallons and gallons of soup,” said Linda Flores- Tober, the agency’s executive director.

More than 50 volunteers spread out across Elizabeth and Plainfield after dark. When they found someone sleeping in the cold, volunteers asked them a series of HUD-mandated survey questions, then offered them a bed for the night. County officials vowed to shelter every homeless person counted, even if it meant putting them up in local motels.