Shelter fights to overcome stigmas

Shelter fights to overcome stigmas
Bergen Record, Tuesday, May 8, 2007

By HARVY LIPMAN
RECORD COLUMNIST

One sound overwhelmed everything else as the residents of the homeless shelter at St. Cecilia’s Church in Englewood finished their dinners Wednesday night:

The laughter of children.

The shelter, run by the Interreligious Fellowship for the Homeless of Bergen County, breaks every stereotype. There are no winos in tattered clothes; no disheveled mentally ill people muttering to themselves; no rows of cots in an open dormitory.

The residents are all families with at least one working parent. Each family lives in one of the shelter’s seven small rooms in a basement hall of the church, separated by temporary walls that provide a modicum of privacy.

One 34-year-old woman, along with her husband and seven children, were burned out of the Bergenfield house they rented when it went up in flames last winter. She asked that not even her first name be published, for fear that the stigma attached to being homeless would hurt her relationships with business associates, other acquaintances and especially landlords.

Her family spent the first six weeks after the fire living in a motel, while she and her husband ran their business selling aroma-therapy products in area malls and tried to find a new apartment. “We depleted all our savings,” she said.

The fellowship provides shelter and educational programs for homeless working families.

Another resident is Chuck, a 34-year-old deliveryman who works seven days a week for a Garfield company. He lives in the shelter with his two young sons. “I’ve been trying to find a two-bedroom place, but the most I can afford is $1,000 a month.”

That’s about $750 less than the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Bergen County, says Reis Inc., a real-estate research company in New York City.

In addition to the shelter, the group also places families in six apartments around the county. Some are in houses owned by one of the 260 churches, synagogues, mosques and other congregations that participate in the Fellowship; others have been donated by individuals.

“It’s a drop in the bucket compared with the need,” said Marsha Mackey, the organization’s executive director.

The group also provides programs on parenting skills and budgeting. It offers mentoring for kids, college scholarships and other educational opportunities.

While the shelter at St. Cecilia’s can house seven families at a time, it closes between 7:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. because the Fellowship doesn’t have enough staff to keep it open. “If we could buy our own building and locate the Fellowship offices and the shelter in the same place, we wouldn’t have to shut down every day,” said Nancy Woods, the shelter coordinator.

Mackey said the organization has been trying to buy a building where it could consolidate its operation for about five years, without success.

“The biggest issue is that people have these preconceived notions of homelessness,” she said. “An owner of a building will hear from other people in the community that they don’t want him to sell it to a homeless shelter, because it will lower their property values.”

Most of the opposition, she added, stems from the stereotypes most people have about the homeless: “As hard as it is to try to change that picture of homelessness, we have to make people understand we’re working with families. We make some headway when we say we’re working with children.”

The group has another image problem to overcome as well: People underestimating the number of homeless in one of the nation’s wealthiest counties.

“The people in our shelter are getting paid hourly wages, most with no benefits attached. On average they make $8 to $10 an hour,” Woods said.

That’s less than half of what it takes a family of four to be able to afford an apartment in Bergen County, Fellowship officials estimate.

Spending on programs: The group’s tax return shows that it spent just 58 percent of its budget on running its programs for the homeless, an unusually small portion. But the organization counted as a program cost only about half of salaries and benefits. At most agencies, a far higher percentage of staff pay is counted as program expenses.

Mackey said she was unaware of the discrepancy until it was pointed out by The Record. Once she looked into the situation, she said the amount of staff pay credited as program cost was significantly underreported, and the organization plans to change the way it allocates those expenses in the future. Neutral

Spending on fund raising: The group had a full-time director of development — the title non-profit groups use for a chief fund-raiser — who was paid $63,500 last year. But it reported spending no money on fund raising, even though it collected $376,166 in donations. Again, Mackey said this was the result of an error in the way staff salary costs were allocated, and would be corrected. The development director has since left the agency and will be replaced with someone paid considerably less, she added. Minus

Executive compensation: Mackey was paid $65,000 last year, which is in the bottom third of what the chief executives of human-services organizations in North Jersey received. Plus

Financial stability: The Fellowship ran a deficit last year, for the third time in the past five years. Mackey said the group had a “terrific” fund-raising event last fall, which should allow it to at least break even for its current fiscal year. Minus

Outcomes: The Fellowship has helped dozens of families find their way through crises and into affordable housing. Plus

Insider deals: The organization’s tax return and audited financial statement show no transactions with top officials, their family members or businesses. Plus

Demand for services: In addition to the 13 families housed in the group’s shelter and apartments at any given time, Mackey said on average between 10 and 17 more families are on its waiting list. She added that the Fellowship is the only Bergen County organization currently providing shelter specifically for homeless families. Plus

Transparency: Fellowship officials readily provided up-to-date tax returns and audited financial statements.

E-mail: lipman@northjersey.com

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Interreligious Fellowship for the Homeless of Bergen County

479 Maitland Ave.

Teaneck, NJ 07666

Web site:

Phone: 201-833-8009