During outreach, the New Jersey Harm Reduction team noticed that many people they spoke with were having trouble finding stable housing, even though they should have been given priority according to government guidelines. The team started helping people find resources and realized that many of the participants they were working with might not be getting the help they needed.
To address this, the leaders of NJHRC started a new program called the Housing Justice Pilot. The first step was to establish a working relationship with the Middlesex County Continuum of Care (CoC) and gain access to the Homeless Management Information System to get people on the by-name list for housing. The Second step was to develop a foundational understanding of participants' housing needs and to develop strategies for enrolling and linking participants with housing resources.
To achieve these goals, the Housing Justice team would begin attending CoC meetings and building relationships with key stakeholders. They also would create a survey to be administered to participants, aiming to gather baseline information about the community's needs. This baseline data would inform the key areas where NJHRC could develop additional housing services under its umbrella of care.
By attending CoC meetings, building relationships, and conducting surveys, NJHRC aims to address potential discrimination and gain insights into the needs of the community. This proactive approach will help NJHRC better serve participants and contribute to a more inclusive and effective housing system within the Middlesex Continuum of Care.
The Housing Justice Team
Bre and Lea played a crucial role in the housing pilot as community advocates. They became responsible for addressing housing questions, concerns, and needs from participants. Although this was not initially part of their job, the immediate need for community advocates led them to fill these roles where they provided support by linking participants to resources, joining calls with case managers, and assisting with complex forms and applications.
Their skills and expertise allowed them to build strong relationships within the community and the CoC. As they worked closely with participants, they became advocates for individuals who required support when navigating the system of care. Through these relationships, Bre and Lea gained firsthand insight into the challenges participants face when seeking assistance.
Their dedication and commitment to their role as community advocates enabled them to provide valuable support and care.
What We Learned
During CoC meetings, we noticed that some organizations' good intentions to help the community were limited by rules and guidelines. These constraints sometimes made their efforts less effective, and judgments from certain individuals affected their engagement levels. One person said that the 211 system was perfect and blamed participants for any system failures. Another CoC member was surprised by the positive outcomes from including a committee of individuals with lived experience. These comments, among others, showed how judgments play a significant role in effectively housing people.
The CoC's main goal is to end homelessness, and all organizations involved work towards this objective. Rules and guidelines are created to streamline the process and direct individuals through the system. Being able to follow these guidelines becomes essential to access housing opportunities.
However, the CoC has realized that many people still fall through the cracks and remain without adequate housing through the Point in Time count. They're making changes and implementing initiatives to better help those experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity. One initiative includes offering assessment intake locations throughout key municipalities, providing an alternative to solely relying on the 211 system.
During outreach, participants began to reach out to us for support while navigating housing resources. Knowing that consistency and reliability are essential to supporting people, we began working directly with a couple of people. We made phone calls to find out what the individual's next steps were, or assisted in scheduling meetings between participants and their case managers. These interactions revealed a significant lack of communication and comprehension between the participants and the systems they were navigating.
Because the need for improved communication and coordination was highlighted, we focused on bridging the gap as community advocates. From this vantage point we were able to learn and understand from the experiences of many who live facing housing insecurity and homelessness.
What We Did
Signed up 8 participants in section 8
walk alongside people during their journey
Of the 34 community members who participated 90% identified as African American or black:
Nearly 34% are aged 51-60.
Over 50% of the community members are currently un-housed and of that number more than half have been un-housed for a year or more. Those that are housed report that their situation is tentative and insecure. 84% report sleeping in or have slept in a place not meant for sleeping during their time unhoused.
The vast majority of participants also fall in priority status categories according to HUD guidelines:
Through our research, we discovered that a significant proportion of community members who experience housing insecurity are not aware of the resources available to them. Additionally, they struggle with understanding the next steps to improve their situation when working with resources. Many of them feel like their attempts to seek help are futile, which has led to a growing sense of mistrust towards available resources. When asked about available shelters, a vast majority of respondents expressed concerns for their safety and geological distance, as most shelters are outside of New Brunswick. Furthermore, due to limited access to transportation, going to a shelter would entail leaving the support and familiarity of their community, which is not a desirable option for most.
The voices of the Community
“You call, they don't answer, or put you on hold, or hang up. There is a lack of transportation. They ask you the same questions over and over to make you seem like you're lying or something.”
“I didn't have any way to pay for it, or a way to go see places. Lot of places were only accepting men. I was out in Edison with no transportation around, to go to New Brunswick was $25 in the cab. I just couldn't get around.”
“I already tried everything and it was all the same shit”
“I know I need to get my housing shit together, but I need to get high first & then I’m out of it so I can’t.”
“Y'all all tell me the same steps to take me nowhere.”
“I’m embarrassed because I shouldn’t be doing this.”
“Bullying, loosing everything, stealing and sexual harassment big time in the streets every day every minute.”
“my pride. I lived with my wife, we had a home and I don't know how lost it all”
“Shelters split up couples and I'd rather stay un-housed together”
What do you like to do for fun
“I like being around real people who are positive because I like to be positive. I like spending time with my family.”
“I love to sing, listen to music, window shop, and go to the movies.”
“I would move to the woods, hike, swim, climb trees, have two dogs, and chop wood.”
“I don't know what I do for fun anymore, all I do is get high, watch TV, and eat.”
“I used to DJ back in the day so I liked to play around sometimes”
“I used to love cooking with my wife”
What would a Housing Justice Department look like?
The way we help people is by understanding their individual needs, rather than following rigid rules. Sometimes, the people we help are not ready or able to follow all the rules. They might feel overwhelmed and unsure of where to start. We need to be patient and help them one step at a time. The goal is to help members gain confidence and be able to self manage.
“I don’t know where to start”, “Process is not clear, it's challenging and there is a lack of support”
A housing liaison is someone who will offer support beyond just filling out forms. They will need to be patient, flexible and reliable, and be able to help with a variety of needs that impact housing. We need to be adaptable and understanding, and work together to find solutions. There are tons of micro-intersections that impact housing significantly, and contribute to someone’s engagement. The housing liaison will need to pivot in non-structure and say “let’s sit down and figure this out”.
Housing Justice Offerings
Member services: stepping outside of case management guidelines. This would have a structure that is set up to be tailored to each individual.
Member Services needs to entail:
What would Housing Justice Need to Function
To establish a strong foundation for the housing team, it is recommended to have two liaisons who will serve as radical advocates. Bre and Lea have already laid the groundwork by securing access to HMIS (Homeless Management Information System) and establishing a strong presence within the CoC.
The liaisons will need to embody qualities of compassion, patience, persistence, consistency, and flexibility as they navigate their roles. It is crucial for them to actively build and maintain relationships with the CoC while also familiarizing themselves with the HMIS system to navigate assessments and intakes effectively.
A key aspect of the role of a radical liaison is to build relationships centered on listening, trust, and advocacy. By actively listening to the participants' needs and concerns, the liaisons can gain their trust and provide effective advocacy on their behalf.
To maximize their impact, it would be beneficial for the two liaisons to coordinate alternating participation in outreach initiatives. This way, both liaisons can become familiar faces within the community, further strengthening relationships and building trust.
With the dedication and efforts of these radical liaisons, the housing team can create a supportive and empowering environment for participants, bridging the communication gap and ensuring their needs are addressed effectively.
Some additional requests from the community
Access to computers and phones
“We need transportation to health appointments”
“Keep us updated and give us assistance with bigger problems.”
“We need more dignity showers that are safe. We need more rehabs. We need access to phones and computers. Have aid for victims of violence. There needs to be school options and resources, mind stimulating games, poetry readings, and courses to be a peer counselor.”
“You all need a section where we can come relax and read a book.”
Acknowledgements and Gratitude
We would like to take this opportunity to express our deepest appreciation and heartfelt gratitude to the amazing community of New Brunswick. We are incredibly humbled and honored by the participants that have entrusted us with their voices, hopes, and fears. The people of this community are strong, resilient, and full of courage, and we feel privileged to have the opportunity to learn from them. By amplifying the voices of those who are often marginalized and overlooked, we believe that those voices can create a brighter future for everyone for generations to come.
We also would like to acknowledge the advocates who have come before us, who are committed to advocating for the needs of all those who are struggling with housing insecurity and to creating positive changes that will empower individuals and families in our community and beyond. Their unwavering and diligent efforts have laid a solid foundation for us to establish and maintain strong bonds of trust with others. This enables us to carry on with our mission of providing service to those who are entitled to be treated with utmost humility and respect.