MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — With changes to available programs and a growing chronically homeless population, Cape May County officials hope to come together with community members to curb the issue of homelessness with temporary and permanent solutions.
“Homelessness can be an invisible issue,” said Cape Community Church Pastor Brad Boyer. “A lot of times, it’s not until a story gets to the news that people understand the scope.”
Beginning Jan. 1, the county was forced to set up emergency group warming shelters after the state-funded motel voucher program for individuals was suspended.
According to the data from the 2018 NJCounts, which takes a place-in-time count of the homeless population in each county, a total of 103 people were counted as experiencing homelessness in Cape May County, with eight people counted as needing immediate shelter on the night of the count. Compared with the surrounding counties, the number is low, but municipal leaders have said the problem continues to grow.
In 2015, Boyer became pastor of the Cape Community Church, not knowing he would be serving in a community that was experiencing a homelessness issue.
“You think resort towns, and you realize that there are many people living here who are underemployed or without a home,” said Boyer.
The church at Route 9 and Oyster Road is the official warming center for Middle Township. The church’s auxiliary meeting space can provide temporary overnight shelter for 12 individuals — the maximum allowed by a state law.
“We have been taking the first steps by looking to outside sources for guidance,” Middle Township police Chief Chris Leusner said.
Leusner, who has been chief of police for 10 years, said he has seen homelessness come to the forefront as a countywide issue. From criminal incidents at the voucher motels to multiple deaths at makeshift homeless campsites, Leusner said, the issue became more apparent to law enforcement and the community needed a solution.
Earlier this year, county officials gathered for a two-part seminar on homelessness and what can be done. Leusner helped organized the event, bringing in Tampa Police Department homelessness consultant Capt. Daniel McDonald to speak about paths to solving a homelessness crisis.
McDonald’s recommendations include a “housing first” approach, meaning having available affordable housing within the municipality and avoiding the cycle of temporary crisis shelters as the primary solution.
According to Leusner, for the several multiple-day Code Blues the county has enacted this winter, the shelter has been at capacity. The county does transport any additional people seeking shelter to other warming centers in the county.
According to a Donna Groome, head of the Cape May County Department of Human Services, county freeholders and staff met with municipal leaders last year to discuss warming centers. In February 2017, the county created a Homeless Trust Fund with approximately $140,000 to support and assist communities in addressing service options for homeless individuals.
“I’m very encouraged by what the county and municipality is doing to help the homeless,” said Boyer.
However, Boyer thinks having the warming centers is a temporary solution during emergencies conditions.
Boyer said handling the homelessness issue this winter has become a multi-level effort. The county provides the warming shelter with cots and blankets, while the municipality has offered police services for security and directing people to the shelter. Pastor said he has even seen an outpouring from the community offering help including clothing and monetary donations.
Freeholder Jeffrey Pierson said a homelessness initiative stakeholders meeting will take place 5 p.m. Thursday at the Freeholders Meeting Room. Community members and municipal leaders have been invited to develop a plan and discuss securing funding for future projects and aid to combat ongoing homelessness.