Salem County Task force to tackle homeless problem

Today’s Sunbeam, Sunday, April 22, 2007

By CHRISTOPHER WEIR, Staff Writer

SALEM The Salem County Freeholder board passed a resolution Wednesday that will create a task force to develop a 10-year plan to eliminate homelessness in Salem County.

There are currently several agencies in the county that address homeless issues but the task force is being created to coordinate those efforts to reduce the plight of the homeless, according to officials.

County Administrator Earl Gage said the freeholder board takes the issue of homelessness in the county seriously and that they plan to make eliminating homelessness a priority.

“This issue is being addressed in a very dramatic way,” Gage said.

United Way of Salem County Executive Director Rebecca Purchase was appointed facilitator of the task force.

“The homeless in our county are becoming invisible people,” Purchase said. “You go to a big city and you step over somebody and you notice they’re homeless.”

“What’s happening in Salem County is that people are quadrupling up in homes, they’re living in substandard homes, they’re living in cars and they’re moving from place to place,” she said.

“Many people are one paycheck away from being homeless,” Purchase said.

The job the task force will undertake will be to identify and categorize the homeless in the county.

For instance, whether or not they are single or married, whether they have families or live alone, the range of ages, and if they suffer from a mental illness.

They will also try and determine the reason for homelessness, such as is it a lack of housing, low income, or the lack of jobs. Another goal will be to examine the types of housing available, whether there is enough housing, and whether or not it’s too expensive.

To formulate the date, they will be looking at those who go to Social Services, Health Care Commons, and also those who call in for help to the 2-1-1 hotline, Purchase said.

Mercer County recently completed its ten year plan and will working with Salem officials on the project.

Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recently released a report stating that a lot of measures that have been used in the past to try and help the homeless is not working.

Among other things, the report states that providing temporary shelter doesn’t meet long term needs, according to Purchase.

“Going from a temporary shelter to transitional housing to permanent housing seems like a logical progression, but its not working that way,” Purchase said. “They’re has to be permanent housing.”

“Putting them in a shelter or motel doesn’t take care of why they’re homeless; they just end up homeless again,” Purchase said.

There is also the problem of substandard housing that exists in the county, and recent flooding has made the problem worse.

The county has seen a number of people in the last six months who are either homeless or in danger of being homeless, according to Purchase.

Those appointed to the task force include Purchase, Gage, Julie Acton, Robin Weinstein, Debbie Behnke, Isaac Young, Kathy Lockbaum, Otis Sistrunk, Joan Cole, Beth Timberman, Ray Bolden, Paul Sutton, Rebecca Purchase, Douglas Smith and Jeffrey Hogan.

The task force is in the process of coordinating a date for its first meeting.

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