In the last few years, Hudson County’s mayors have discussed what to do with local homeless residents, particularly as their ranks increase in a tough economy. With winter returning, the three area homeless shelters are at or near capacity, officials say.
Earlier this year, task forces convened both countywide and in Union City, where some homeless people live in the Palisade hills. While Union City threatened to remove the shacks in the hills last year, the residents who wanted to stay in their makeshift homes have so far been allowed to remain.
In January 2003, a Union City committee was formed consisting of Mayor Brian Stack, Union City Police superiors, Union City spokesperson Gayle Kaufman and P.E.R.C. Shelter directors Tom Harrigan and Lourdes Robello, as well as other city workers.
Said Kaufman at the time, “We want to, first of all, find out how many people are living there, what kind of structures they’re living in and where they go at night.” Added Kaufman, “The last call I want to get is that someone has frozen to death.”
That is what almost happened in February 2003. During a particularly brutal cold snap, the Union City Police Department and members of the Hudson County Office of Emergency Management fanned out on the hill to encourage the residents to find shelter indoors. They found a barely-conscious man and brought him to the hospital to recover. According to Det. Jose Martinez, “If we hadn’t found him when we did, he would have died. We don’t know who he is or where he is from. He was in bad shape. Thank God we found him.”
Union City Mayor Brian Stack had directed his city building officials last winter to place padlocks and condemnation signs on the shelters that the homeless had built on the hill. But homeless residents wanted to stay.
Said Stack at the time, “All we are trying to do is get them into the shelter.”
Since then, the debate has gotten quiet. It seems that with the warm weather, the homeless become somewhat less of an issue. But when the weather turns and the cold winds begin to blow, shelters begin to fill up and food kitchens begin running out of food.
Union City P.E.R.C. Shelter Director Tom Harrigan said last week, “We certainly haven’t seen a lull in our business; that’s for sure. The numbers [of homeless looking for shelter] have stayed where they were, if not gone up. I spoke to Sister Norberta [of the Hoboken Shelter] and we were discussing the oncoming winter.”
Added Harrigan, “Nothing has changed. I still see the hill people periodically. I can smell the cinders and the smoke on them. That’s how I know they’re hill people.”
Stack seems to have backed off from his earlier demands to see the hill cleared. Said Stack, “We’ve left it alone. There are no plans to move them until we have a place to put them.”
Stack added that he has been “working with [the residents of the hill] individually to find them places to stay.”
All of the area shelters are operating at or above capacity and with recent budget cuts, Harrigan said.
“We’re still hitting 35 to 40 people a night,” he said, “and the other shelters [in Hoboken and Jersey City] are all at capacity as well.”
The Union City shelter has 40 beds, while Jersey City has 80 and Hoboken has 50.
According to sources, many of the hill residents go to shelters for meals, but shun the shelters as a place to stay, preferring the “freedom” of the hill. Some of the hill residents are alcoholics and drug abusers, and such behavior is prohibited at the shelters.
Last week, Harrigan advocated a surprisingly heavy-handed approach regarding the hill.
Said Harrigan, “There comes a time when you have to stop pussy-footing around. Everybody wants to be politically correct. There comes a time when you have to take a stand. I am not saying that they should dismantle everything up there, but the police have to be a real presence up there.”
According to Union City Police Captain Joe Blaettler, there have been no complaints about the hill congregants recently.
“As far as I know, there are no new plans [to move the homeless on the hill],” Blaettler said. “From a police standpoint, we haven’t really received any calls.”
Last year, there were complaints from residents of the Doric Towers high rise apartment building about homeless people lighting fires under the building, but according to police, there have been no complaints for quite a while.
Union City is not alone in its homeless problem. According to Sister Norberta Hunnewinkel of the Hoboken Shelter located on Third and Bloomfield Streets, the problem hasn’t abated there.
“In the last year, the numbers have gone up significantly,” said Hunnewinkel. “The big, big issue is the lack of affordable housing in this area. We see seniors waiting for a year or more to get into an apartment. Some of them have no specific problems; they just need a place to live.”
Last year, Hoboken Mayor David Roberts opened a food bank on Hudson Street between 13th and 14th Streets. While this has helped to some degree, Hunnewinkel isn’t sure it will meet the demand this year. “I don’t really know what we’re going to do,” she said.
In Jersey City, the problem is quite acute. According to Santos Murillo, Director of the Sharing Place, a food pantry/soup kitchen located at 440 Hoboken Road, the problem is reaching epic proportions.
“I am seeing that the shelters were full during the summer,” he said. “If they’re full in the summer when it’s hot, these people that are living in abandoned buildings or along the railroad tracks will be looking for shelter and warmth, and there is no place for them to go.”
Murillo can’t understand why cities aren’t doing more.
“There is nothing new happening,” Murillo said. “The municipalities aren’t really doing anything to address the problem. I don’t understand it.”
Murillo added that a person who is homeless rapidly depletes his or her physical and mental reserves quickly when battling the elements.
“And what that means is that they wind up in emergency rooms,” said Murillo. “And that becomes ‘charity care,’ which costs five to $700 per visit. And that’s if they don’t get hospitalized. Then, the costs go through the roof. It’s costing us more to be cheap, in the long run.”
Where to get shelter or donate
To find out more about the local homeless shelters, call:
Hoboken Clergy Coalition Shelter
St. Lucy’s Shelter
Palisades Emergency Residence Corp. (PERC)/
St. John’s Shelter