Everything is looking up for local homeless shelters.
New Jersey providers of homelessness shelters and services have banded together to form the New Jersey Shelter Providers Consortium, resulting in many accomplishments during the past year. In addition to raising the awareness of homelessness as a priority issue in the state, one of their most recent and largest achievements was securing a $9 million dollar grant from the NJ state budget. This funding will further reimburse the shelters and their workers, and help to keep up with the rising costs of operation. This is a big win for the NJ Shelter Providers Consortium and those they serve.
You may not have heard of the NJ Shelter Providers Consortium, but it has quietly become an effective, influential voice for the state’s homeless community. The Consortium is comprised of a loose network of roughly 200 homelessness agencies and shelters across New Jersey and supported by the AmeriCorps VISTA program and a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant. Their collective help boosted the awareness of the struggles homeless shelters were facing during the 2020 year.
“Homelessness agencies have been doing significantly more during the pandemic, while our operating costs have been rising,” said Connie Mercer, Convener of the Consortium and Founder and CEO of HomeFront, the Consortium’s parent agency. “Some shelters could no longer manage it and had to close their doors.”
Like many other organizations, the pandemic hit shelter operations hard. NJ shelters made it clear that the need for financial support was dire. Thanks to Senator Shirley Turner of district 15 and members of the Consortium, the $9 million dollar grant was secured and allowed for an increase in income to reimburse shelter workers for their overtime.
A longtime supporter of local homelessness agencies, Sen. Turner heard the Consortium’s call and submitted a budget resolution. “I wanted to make sure the shelter worker’s increase was included because I wasn’t going to support the budget without it,” said Sen. Turner. Her efforts succeeded, and with it, brought pay raises for frontline shelter staff, who work with many of the state’s most vulnerable residents.
“This budget allocation and the work of Senator Turner on behalf of an overlooked core of essential workers is testimony to why the NJ Shelter Providers Consortium is so important,” said Mary Gay Abbott-Young, President of the Rescue Mission of Trenton. “Through our collective sharing and advocacy, homelessness is front and center.”
She continued, “Our responsibility to those experiencing homelessness demands that we continue to improve services and housing opportunities. The Consortium is truly a valuable partner to government in that work.”
This was not the first win for the Consortium. Since late 2018, the Consortium has kept shelter directors informed, empowered and sane during Covid-19 by sharing best practices, leveraging resources and advocating on the state level. Their monthly meetings played host to officials from numerous state agencies, bridging the gap between the state government and local providers at a time of heightened uncertainty and chaos.
A collaboration between the NJ Department of Health (DOH) and the Consortium led to a rapid, free Covid-19 testing pilot program for shelters, which allowed many of them to reopen their doors to those in need of emergency housing and support. They ensured shelter staff and clients had priority access to vaccines, protecting an exposed population, and helped DOH craft messaging by hosting a shelter providers vaccine listening session. Another collaboration with the NJ Division of Family Development (DFD) led to reimbursement for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) purchased by the shelters.
Leveraging existing relationships and resources through HomeFront, the Consortium has brought additional benefits to its members. Partnering with Act Cess USA, an NJ-based management consultant, and employee training company, the Consortium successfully applied for a $150,000 grant with the NJ Department of Labor and Workforce Development that is providing training to 24 agencies, including Anchor House and the Rescue Mission of Trenton. Consortium members can purchase furniture at a 10 percent discount from Jess Crate, a Philadelphia, PA company.
Thanks to in-kind donations from Amazon and Bombas, the Consortium distributed over 87,000 masks and 2,500 pairs of socks to member agencies. During the 2020 Christmas holiday, over 140 games and toys made their way into the hands of homeless children across the state. HomeFront’s wildly successful Diaper Challenge, including a massive donation of 675,000 baby wipes, has also enabled the Consortium to provide over 104,000 baby wipes to six agencies.
Though the urgency of the pandemic has faded, the Consortium remains a vibrant hub for shelter directors to exchange ideas, support one another and collectively fight for a seat at the table.
“This has literally been the most effective and meaningful, professional group that I’ve been a part of,” said Zammeah Bivins-Gibson, Executive Director of Isaiah House, an East Orange based social services agency. “I’m so proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish. There truly is strength in numbers!”