By Ras J. Baraka and Sakinah Hoyte
In the past few weeks, the City of Newark has launched three major initiatives to help those without a permanent address, each guided by the values that everyone deserves to be dignified, respected and have a safe place to rest.
This is easy to say, of course, but much more difficult to do. When we search our own souls and ask how we see the homeless, the answer may not be “with dignity or respect.” Many of us walk or drive past them every day with little to no appreciation because they make us uncomfortable. These feelings of discomfort are often not just related to their looks and behavior. For empathetic people, they can trigger a deeper, more visceral response, an agonizing feeling of “there, but for the grace of God I am”.
Many of our homeless became like this because they were asked to leave the common residence of a family member or friend: fight, divorce, separation. Loss of jobs or wage cuts leading to eviction or foreclosure. Homelessness, such as drug addiction and mental illness, can visit any population group. We see this on our streets, but like many social ills, does it disproportionately affect blacks and Latinx who sometimes don’t have family networks to support more mouths to feed.
Another dark reaction that creates homelessness from our guts is society’s failure. The richest country in the world, home to more than 600 billionaires and nearly 20,000 millionaires – five times as many as China, the closest country – should be able to provide housing as a basic human right for everyone, just as we should provide psychiatric provision Services, drug treatment and other social means to convert the people living on the streets into permanent housing.
The first of our three initiatives will do just that. In late February, we laid the foundation for a major renovation to convert the old Miller Street Elementary School into a modern 24,000 square foot community service and emergency shelter to provide permanent shelter for the homeless in Newark. This is done in collaboration with Claremont Development, who owns the website, and Catholic Charities, who have run social and health programs there.
The Miller Street Pathways to Housing Center project marks a milestone in Newark’s community-wide effort to combat and eradicate homelessness and provide critical, accessible transition support services to the most vulnerable. These services include individual counseling and case management, behavioral health services, social services, nutrition services, and a daily drop-in center where individuals can bathe or shower and do laundry.
A fully equipped commercial kitchen on site prepares meals for residents and trains people in the shelter to make meals to keep them employable. The new facility will have a total of 166 transition beds for men, women and families. 84 beds are for men, 44 for women and 21 “Code Blue” beds as well as seven single suites with a total of 17 beds for families. The daily drop-in facility has individual bathrooms with showers, washers and dryers, tables and chairs, and TVs.
Our second project addresses the reality that some homeless people live outdoors for a variety of reasons, including institutional and systemic trauma, resistance to rules, fear of outrageous treatment and violence in shelters, and cannot be induced to seek shelter or services to take.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many of our homeless people respected the citywide lockdowns and remained confiscated in our accommodations, resulting in a shortage of beds for our recalcitrant population in extreme weather. Our solution was to work with Homes 4 Homeless and the United Community Corp. partnered to create a low barrier, emergency shelter and safe sleeping space called NEWARK Hope Village.
With this initiative, we released national news as the housing units are repurposed shipping containers, a unique way of creating safe, modern housing and housing. The village was used as an open canvas for local artists to create an aesthetically pleasing place of warmth, comfort and safety.
The aim of the village is to provide catalytic refuge for the most vulnerable outdoor populations, segregated from traditional emergency shelters and supportive homeless services, and whose lives are at risk in extreme weather conditions. We hope that the atmosphere in the village promotes healthy living and rebuilding trust, re-enlisting them in support of social services, and remaining safely protected as we work to connect them to permanent housing.
Our final initiative was to offer our residents free COVID-19 vaccines with no addresses, thus continuing our years of practice of keeping them safe and alive during the pandemic. From the beginning of COVID-19, we have housed our willing homeless in emergency shelters and an airport hotel, provided three meals a day and tested them regularly. This resulted in a positivity rate of less than 3% last spring, far less than the national average. We believe that an immeasurable number of people have been saved from contracting the disease.
These humanitarian efforts are aimed at a population that sometimes, if at all, is perceived as just anger. By “seeing” them, we can not only serve them in the hope of eradicating homelessness, but also create community awareness that includes the idea that we have a social responsibility, a basic human right, a safe one, to our neighbors To offer shelter and an individual responsibility to treat them with dignity and respect.
Ras J. Baraka is the Mayor of Newark City. Sakinah Hoyte is the homeless tsar of the city.
Our journalism needs your support. Please subscribe to NJ.com today.
Here’s how to send a comment or letter to the editor. Bookmark NJ.com/Opinion. Follow us on Twitter @NJ_Opinion and on Facebook at NJ.com Opinion. Get the latest news straight to your inbox. Subscribe to the NJ.com newsletter.