New Jersey enacts pair of laws aimed at helping the homeless

TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey is boosting taxpayer-financed aid for the homeless under a pair of bills Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy has signed into law.

One law sets up an Office of Homelessness Prevention to coordinate efforts across state government departments. The measure sets aside $3 million for the effort.

The other law expands access to emergency-assistance benefits for the homeless. It says a 12-month limit of accessing those benefits resets after seven years, but individuals have a cumulative total of 24 months of benefits.

That measure calls for no more than $20 million to be spent in new aid and allocates $5 million for case management.

Murphy signed both bills on Tuesday. Their sponsors hail them as long-awaited efforts to address a complex problem. Opponents, in the case of the new office, argue that more bureaucracy isn’t needed.

A closer look at the issue:

WHAT CHANGES UNDER THE NEW LAWS?

A number of different departments in New Jersey’s state government address homelessness. The legislation establishes one umbrella office aimed at preventing homelessness and also creates a 15-member task force to help study homelessness prevention.

Supporters of the legislation say it’s needed to improve coordination.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all problem,” said Steve Leder, a volunteer attorney with the Community Health Law Project. “There’s no real silver bullet.”

Opponents, like Republican Sen. Joe Pennacchio, called it “lunacy” to use taxpayer money to “create a new bureaucracy to oversee the overseers.”

The second law changes the state’s limits for emergency assistance to people on Social Security and welfare.

Under a previous law, residents were capped at 12 months of aid. The new law says the 12-month limit resets after seven years, but residents are capped at 24 total months of benefits.

For instance, under the old law, if someone used eight months of assistance 10 years ago, but had another emergency, then that person would just have fourth months of assistance available. Under the new law, those eight months of aid from a decade ago would not count toward the cap because they were more than seven years old.

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WHAT IS THE SCOPE OF HOMELESSNESS HERE?

The nonprofit Monarch Housing Associates, which conducts what it calls a “point in time” survey, counts the homeless population every year on a single night.

The latest figures from 2018 show New Jersey had about 9,300 homeless people, about 9% more than a year earlier. That figure tallies closely with data from the U.S. Interagency Council of Homelessness, which said there were about 9,400 homeless in New Jersey as of January 2018.

Among the Monarch Housing Associates survey’s findings were racial gaps among the homeless. While black residents account for about 13% of the state’s overall population, about 48% of homeless people were black. White residents make up about 57% of the state’s population, but 27% of those who are homeless.

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WHAT DO THE NEW LAWS COST THE PUBLIC?

The law sets aside $3 million for the new office the fiscal year starting in 2020. It’s a drop in the bucket of a $38.6 billion budget.

Murphy earlier vetoed a version of emergency-assistance measure because he was concerned about the cost. The new law caps what the state will spend, limiting it to $20 million for new aid, with an additional $5 million for case management related to the assistance.

Legislative estimates say there’s insufficient information to say how many households would be affected by the change.

Currently, the administration says about 8,000 emergency-assistance cases a month are expected in the current fiscal year, with the average benefit ranging from $600 to $1,000.

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