In 2011 JP Steinberg was arrested and sentenced to a year in the Baltimore county jail for distribution of illicit substances. In 2005 he had been diagnosed with PTSD and shortly thereafter had begun to self-medicate. Without his income, his wife, Mary, and Lily, their 2-year-old daughter, were evicted from their home in Jackson, New Jersey. He watched from jail, helpless to do more than make plans for his return as Mary and Lily stayed on friends’ and family members’ couches. He planned to attend college when he was released, knowing, as he writes in his paper on their ordeal, “that at almost forty years of age a simple minimum wage job with no formal education was not going to cut it.”
After his release, they attempted to receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) but were told that Mary’s unemployment assistance was too great to be approved for TANF for a family of three. Her unemployment assistance was about $200 a week. (At the time they also received SNAP – formerly food stamp – assistance.) TANF is a government program which provides general assistance to families in need. In New Jersey, the program is also known as WorkFirst NJ.
“Things started to get really bad for us really quickly,” said JP in a recent phone interview with the author. “The kind of honeymoon period of me coming home from jail and being happy to be reunited with my family started to wear off very quickly due to the stress, and not having a place to call home. We had been sleeping on friends’ floors and couches with a child, with this $200 a week that wasn’t going to get us anywhere so at least we weren’t starving. Friends and family, as much as they try to help, they also need you to chip in if you’re living there so some of that money was going towards their groceries or helping them pay their bills.”
In June 2012, they had run out of places to crash and went to Ocean County Social Services where they were turned away. (Their file had been flagged for fraud; unaware of this they were repeatedly denied help. The allegation was finally proven to be false.)
“At that point, we were down to $40 or $50 in our pockets and, fortunately it was summer, we were hanging out there on the front lawn of the Social Services building with nowhere to go,” said JP.
Facing homelessness, JP, his wife, and Lily sat on the front lawn of Social Services making call after call to agencies and organizations.
“I had enough battery on my phone to start making phone calls,” said JP. “As I started doing those phone calls – the few who actually answered the phone – every time they picked up the phone the answer was pretty much the same: they didn’t have funding, they didn’t have room for us, or we didn’t meet their eligibility requirements.”
Finally they were connected with Jeffrey Wild, a founder of the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness. From there they were led through the maze of human needs programs by a team of advocates and were finally able to obtain TANF and rental assistance.
JP, his wife, and two children are now in their fourth year of receiving TANF. He is a full-time student at Kean studying psychology while his wife is a stay-at-home mom. JP is also a graduate of Garden State Leaders, a program designed to build advocacy and leadership skills among those who have direct experiences with homelessness.
JP’s family receives about $348 per month in TANF after $146 is taken for rent. They also receive $650 in SNAP assistance (formerly food stamps), as well as rental assistance for their two bedroom apartment in Tom’s River, which is about $1300 a month. The family’s medical needs are covered by Medicaid.
On February 11, New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP), a Trenton based think tank, released a report on TANF finding that the amount of assistance that New Jersey families receive has been stagnant for 29 years. As a result, today TANF assistance is worth less than half what it was worth in 1987.
According to NJPP’s report, New Jersey’s monthly assistance is 15% of what the Department of Human Services says is needed to “maintain a decent and healthy standard of living.” This standard, which is updated each year, is currently $2,736 a month for a family of three. At $424 per month, New Jersey’s maximum assistance for a family of 3 is the lowest in the Northeast – by far. Forty states – including very poor states like West Virginia and Kentucky – offer better TANF support to struggling families than New Jersey when the cost of housing is considered. Housing costs in New Jersey are among the highest in the nation.
NJPP has released recommendations to improve the TANF program including a call to start gradually restoring TANF assistance with an increase of 30% over 3 years and require annual cost-of-living increases once the 30% increase is fully phased-in.
These changes would make an immediate difference in the lives of families like JP’s. They would not only give them more resources, but would also prevent other families from being disqualified from any assistance due to minimal income from other sources like unemployment insurance or part-time, minimum wage work.
Susan Parker is now living in supportive housing but has experienced homelessness in the Mount Laurel area. Having struggled both with mental health and addiction challenges, she now works as a peer advocate with Catholic Charities helping others rebuild their lives. She also serves on the Board of APN and is a member of Garden State Leaders.
“I was one of the lucky ones and I got housing,” Parker said. “Without a home it’s hard to put everything behind you and keep it moving. You’re constantly worried about where you’re going to sleep, where you’re going to get a shower. You can’t concentrate on any other issue other than where you’re going to sleep. Once you have a place to call home you can concentrate on other issues.”
“My favorite quote is everybody deserves a little place to call home,” she said.
Susan is one of many people in New Jersey who demonstrate the importance of Housing First. and other communities across New Jersey, Housing First works to first and foremost provide the chronically homeless with a permanent home. Once individuals are housed, support services are provided as needed. Housing First provides housing without litmus tests such as sobriety or checks for an incarceration history, much as you might provide water to someone who is thirsty — without first making them prove they deserve it.
Housing First effectively and dramatically reduces chronic homelessness, proving that homelessness is a problem we can actually solve. According to aDr. Jeffrey Brenner, founder of the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers, and Elizabeth Buck, more than 84 percent of individuals remain stably housed through a Housing First model.
Want to take action to end homelessness? Check out the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness and Garden State Leaders, an innovative program that builds advocacy and leadership skills among those who have direct experience with homelessness. And visit the Anti-Poverty Network website to find out about meetings and events, sign-up for action alerts, become a member, and learn more about how you can get involved in a growing movement across our state to end homelessness.
Megan lives in transitional housing for survivors of domestic violence. She receives government assistance, and goes to the food pantry for additional help. She is trying to rebuild her life after surviving years of abuse, both as a child and an adult.
“I was so used to being abused that it was normal for me. It was just how life is. It led me to my ex. We were in a relationship for about 2.5 years that was physically, sexually and verbally abusive. It was torture really.”
Megan left her ex and is now raising her two young boys as a single mother.
“I had enough courage to save my life. I’m trying to learn how to move forward as a survivor.
What’s helped me the most with my children is the SNAP program. Without that program there would be no way I could feed my kids. At times it doesn’t seem like enough but it’s better than nothing.”
Megan is one of more than 1,000,000 people experiencing food insecurity in New Jersey. New Jersey’s SNAP participation rate is 77% – below the national average of 83%. This means that 23% of people who are eligible for SNAP benefits in New Jersey are not receiving them.
Want to take action to fight hunger? Visit the Anti-Poverty Network website to find out about meetings and events, sign-up for action alerts, become a member, and learn more about how you can get involved in a growing movement across our state to end hunger, poverty.