As the curve flattens and businesses across the region and state begin to reopen, the long-term socio-economic impacts of COVID-19 will continue to reverberate across the Atlantic City region, our state and nation in the coming months — if not years.

Facts tell the full story — 26,000 employees are out of work regionally, with the Atlantic County metro area’s 33.3% unemployment second worst on the U.S. mainland behind Las Vegas.

We have not seen unemployment numbers at this level since the Great Depression, and the Federal Reserve estimates that nearly 40% of households nationwide making less than $40,000 a year have lost their jobs. It is no surprise that according to a recent study conducted by a Columbia University economist and professor, homelessness in the United States could grow as much as 45% over the next year as a direct result of the pandemic.

However, one thing is clear: Underserved communities have undoubtedly been the hardest hit by this pandemic. Individuals experiencing homelessness, those returning to society from prison of jail, low-wage earners, minority communities — these populations have had to shoulder the crippling burdens of battling this pandemic from a mental, environmental and socio-economic standpoint.

The disparity in care and limited access to resources is painfully obvious. As many of us have been lucky to shelter in place, work from home and reduce our exposure during the pandemic, many individuals have been left exposed and vulnerable — without the proper resources to protect themselves, yet significantly more susceptible to infection, spread and even death.

Therefore, social service programs aimed at providing support to our most vulnerable populations, specifically the homeless and those returning to society from incarceration, will become even more critical as New Jersey embarks on the process of re-opening.

Throughout the pandemic, these programs have become more critical than ever by diverting individuals away from costly crisis-oriented systems, including emergency rooms and jails, and to social service providers who can more appropriately address their needs and ensure long-term success. The assistance services provided through these programs encompasses all needs — including, but not limited to, housing, job training and counseling, medical care, mental health and substance abuse treatment — while simultaneously recognizing the special challenges faced by more vulnerable populations, such as veterans, immigrants and those in the criminal justice system.

Critical social service assistance programs like Volunteers of America Delaware Valley’s Navigator and Safe Return, both offered in Atlantic City, are often the only resources available to these hard-to-serve populations. The vital structure and evidence-based treatment interventions offered through these programs have proven successful time and time again — helping individuals secure a stable, safe environment, reducing the risk of re-offense and encouraging proper reintegration back into society. In fact, the recidivism rate for participants in VOADV’s Safe Return program has been calculated at 10.43% — that is 84% lower than the national average. Yet, these programs are now at risk of being eliminated all together as a direct result of COVID-19.

With massive revenue shortfalls, the New Jersey Legislature has some very difficult decisions to make in the coming weeks. However, cuts to critical social services would be more catastrophic than anyone could begin to imagine. If we do not support our social services now, we will pay much higher costs later when prisons are overcrowded, hospitals even more overburdened and homeless populations rise.

We are equipped with the knowledge and decision-making power to advance the social rights and well-being of all those living in Atlantic City, the region and beyond. Now is the time to lead by example — we cannot afford to leave any individual with nowhere to turn in these uncertain times.

Amanda Leese, of Egg Harbor Township, is vice president of Safe Return/Navigator Programs, Volunteers of America Delaware Valley.

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