Advocates for the homeless delivered a clear message Wednesday to the Board of Freeholders: Ocean County must do more to help its most vulnerable residents.
A standing-room-only crowd packed the freeholders' regular meeting in the county to plead for new solutions to the plight of the homeless, arguing for the establishment of a trust fund, among other measures. Activists held supportive signs as speakers shared their stories and asked for greater cooperation with the county freeholders.
Homelessness is a "social justice issue," argued Larry Meegan, the president of the Kiwanis Club of Jackson. "A lot of people are slipping through the safety net."
"This problem must be addressed by all of our energies," said the Rev. Michael Mazer, pastor of in Toms River. He urged the board to avoid seeing homeless assistance as a "welfare issue," arguing it instead is a "residents' rights" issue.
"Too often we only reach for the minimum standard... it's time we revise that standard," Mazer said.
Several speakers said the freeholders could start by joining other counties around the state in imposing a $3 surcharge on each filed document (such as a deed) under a state law enacted more than two years ago.
The surcharges would be collected for a county-wide Homeless Trust Fund that would be dedicated for several uses: acquisition or rehabilitation of housing units; rental vouchers; support services; and prevention services. Only 5 percent of the fund would be legally permitted to be diverted to cover administrative costs, with the balance going directly toward assistance measures.
Michelle Rosen, the Democratic candidate for freeholder this fall and a Waretown resident, said the time had come for she and the board members to "take our political hats off.
"Do what you have to do to fund the Homeless Trust," Rosen said.
Other speakers urged Ocean County to adopt the "Housing First" model, which seeks to move social service agencies away from the continuum of care that defines shelters and transitional housing to a model that seeks to establish permanent housing as the first step in assistance.
Still others argued for the county to use some of its land to build housing for the homeless.
Ocean County annually expends up to $20 million via the Board of Social Services on homelessness assistance. The board offers a variety of services, including temporary housing, transitional units, rental assistance, emergency assistance and more.
Two speakers shared their personal experiences, asserting that homelessness can afflict almost anybody.
Lynn Swett, an Ocean Gate resident and mother of two, described how she and her small children went from a stable home to a campground following her divorce. She finds it difficult to find work, having been out of the job market since she married. Although she now has a roof over her head, she still relies on public assistance and searches for permanent employment.
Doug, a resident of a controversial encampment in the woods off Cedar Bridge Avenue, said he has more than three decades of experience as a contractor. A former homeowner and father of two, he said a series of circumstances left him sleeping among the dozens who call the woods their home.
"Sometimes it just happens," Doug said.
The freeholders were restrained in their ability to comment by ongoing litigation against the county on behalf of the residents of Tent City, although Freeholder Director Joseph Vicari said their arguments would be reviewed. Vicari allowed all those who sought a chance to speak a turn at the microphone.
The board did not address several requests for private meetings between advocates and freeholders to further the discussion.
Meegan, the Kiwanis president, said he wants reasons articulated if the freeholders decide they cannot provide assistance as suggested.
"It's the morally right thing to do," he said.