The last time Anthony Aceola had a home was 1987. The longtime Jersey City resident used to live in a two-family house owned by his grandmother.
“She used to own two houses in downtown Jersey City,” Aceola said. “We all lived in one house. The other one she rented.”
Then, in the ‘80s, his grandmother got behind in her property tax payments. She eventually lost both homes to foreclosure and the family was soon out on the streets.
Aceola, now 62, has been homeless ever since.
He was among the thousands of men, women, and children who were counted as part of the biennial homeless census mandated by the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Every two years social service workers, volunteers, and advocates for the homeless take to the streets and scope out abandoned buildings, shelters, parks, ERs, transportation hubs, and other spaces where the homeless take refuge to gauge how many Americans may be living without homes.
The national, one-day census took place on Jan. 28. Throughout the day census takers asked every homeless person they could find a 24-question survey that tracked such information as how long they’ve been homeless, whether they receive government assistance, and whether they have children living with them on the street.
Nationally it is estimated that some 744,000 people are homeless, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Counting the sheltered, unsheltered
Final numbers for the county census won’t be released for several months.
But in January 2008 advocates for the homeless counted 2,227 people without homes in Hudson County. The previous year they found 2,842 homeless people living in the county. Although HUD only mandates that the census be taken every two years, Hudson County advocates choose to conduct the survey annually.
“Statewide, as advocates, we all felt that to get good data on our homeless population in New Jersey we should do it every year,” said Jacob DeLemos, housing assistance program director for the Hudson County Division of Housing and Community Development.
Last month the National Alliance to End Homelessness released census findings from 2005 to 2007. The report found that Hudson County witnessed a 23 percent increase among the chronically homeless and a 10 percent increase in homeless families during those years.
Federal funding for homeless programs, however, is flat.
“Our ongoing projects have been getting funded without any increases, and over the last few years there hasn’t been any money available for new projects,” DeLemos said.
As in other counties throughout New Jersey, the Hudson County census was conducted in two parts.
Early in the day census counters surveyed people who attended Project Homeless Connect, an event organized by the Hudson County Alliance to End Homelessness held at the Mary McLeod Bethune Life Center in Jersey City. Through the event people could get a hot meal, clothing and access to more than 30 service provider groups that participated in the event.
That night census counters fanned out into the streets to count people taking shelter in PATH stations, emergency rooms, and fast food restaurants – people like Anthony Aceola.
While sitting in the emergency room of Jersey City Medical Center, Aceola recounted his years on the streets and his frustrating attempts to get assistance.
“Every time I tried to apply [for disability benefits], they told me I wasn’t eligible,” stated Aceola, who said he has blood clots in his right leg.
In the 22 years since his grandmother lost her homes, Aceola said he has lost touch with his relatives. Some members of his family, he speculated, are now dead; others have perhaps landed on their feet and found permanent homes again. Other relatives may be homeless, living on the streets like him.
“It’s common for the homeless to go emergency rooms on cold nights.” – Susan Milan
On frigid nights he frequently sits in the Jersey City Medical Center ER, where the staff leave him alone and sometimes give him a meal.
Indeed, two staffers at the hospital confirmed that Aceola is “one of the regulars.”
“It’s common for the homeless to go ERs on cold nights like tonight,” said Susan Milan a census taker who works with the Jersey City Episcopal Community Development Corporation. “In previous years we’ve surveyed several homeless people in ERs.”
Aceola was one of two homeless men who took refuge in the Jersey City Medical Center ER that night – a night when the temperature dropped to 24 degrees.
“If it wasn’t for this hospital I wouldn’t have no place to go,” Aceola commented. “They take care of me good here.”