Community comes together to stem tide of homelessness

Staff Writer

Nerlene Mayers used to be a statistic — one of the estimated 1,500 homeless people in Middlesex County.

Mayers lost her job in 2009 and her home in 2010. Recently, with the help of a nonprofit foundation, Mayers and her children found a place to live at Imani Park, Edison, a transitional housing project backed by the resource group Making It Possible to End Homelessness.

“No one wants to be homeless,” Mayers said, sharing her experiences during the annual Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day event in Highland Park on Dec. 21. “This was not a plan for my life. … That was not the goal that was set out for my life. But some of us have reached this destination at one time or another.”

Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, observed in more than 200 communities across 40 states, is held on the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. The Reformed Church of Highland Park (RCHP) and its Affordable Housing Corp. hosted this year’s vigil.

“Whether it’s unseasonably warm, ridiculously cold or unbearably hot and humid, homelessness is not about the weather report or how comfortable or not it is to be in a tent, in a box, under a tarp or below the train trestles at night,” said Lori Freedman, project manager for the Affordable Housing Corp. “Homelessness is about the lack of affordable housing for every single person … every single beating heart and living soul.” The program opened with a candlelight vigil that honored the nine people who died in Middlesex County during the past year from causes related to being homeless.

“These deaths brought about by homelessness were tragic because they were preventable,” Freedman said. “We can do better for every single person in our community.”

The program used songs, music and a variety of speakers, including some from government agencies, and those who have experience with homelessness.

Some spoke of the need to press officials at the municipal, county, state and federal levels to address the issue of homelessness.

“Today is an important day for all of us, because we come here and show numbers,” said Andre Delaney, who is homeless. “We need more people to step up to the plate. If we show numbers, the government will have to listen.”

The Point in Time survey, an annual count that takes place in January, tabulates the number of homeless people in the county and assesses their needs. This year’s count will be held Jan. 29 in New Brunswick, Perth Amboy and Woodbridge.

“We survey all sheltered and unsheltered individuals and families in the county who are experiencing homelessness,” Paskell said. “That information then goes to the state and ultimately to the federal government. It is with that information that we will be able to show what the need truly is in Middlesex County.”