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In late February, the New York Times issued a report entitled “A Life Without a Home:  Voices from the Tents, Shelters, Cars, Motels, and Couches of America.”  The article addressed this issue by listening to families and individuals who are homeless . . . and it is NOT just those we see sleeping on the streets or in parks.  Most of us are unaware of who might be homeless, because, to many, it appears that they have a “home.”  Not so.

A couch is not a home.  Often the first step when one loses their own home is to live with friends or family.  It is called “doubling up” when two families live together in space intended for one.  If this is for a short period of time, it may not seem to be that bad.  In fact, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) does not consider one to be homeless if they are in a doubled-up situation.

But in 1987, the US Congress passed the McKinney-Vento Act, which recognizes youth and children as homeless if they live in doubled-up housing.  This legislation enables over 1.2 million students in public schools to access benefits like free lunch, transportation, and dedicated liaisons.  Despite having a roof over their heads these children face stressors affecting learning, mental health, and emotional well-being.

Over the years, I have heard people say, “Well, at least they have a place to stay, and they should be thankful for that.”  True – they have a roof over their heads.  But we should not be blind to the facts – we know there are serious short and long-term consequences of living doubled-up.

A motel is not a home.  I’m not talking about staying for a week or so at a motel at the Shore or in the Poconos.  Inconvenient enough when on vacation or on a business trip, but at least there is a private bathroom and shower, and you’re only there for a short period of time with friends or family – and you are not in the motel room 24/7.

I’m talking about the motels on Route 46 . . . and Route 4 . . . and Route 17.  I used to wonder, “Who actually lives in these motels?”  I never really considered that these motels often provide rooms for homeless families and individuals.

This became an eye-opener for me when Covid struck, and the residents of the shelter in Hackensack were relocated to motels for health reasons.  Instead of serving dinner to them at the shelter each night, we packed the dinners into to-go trays and delivered them to all who had been relocated.  I saw these motels, and some of the individuals and families  who live there.  And I began to understand that most of the people there are in search of some type of affordable housing.

Oh, again . . . that pesky HUD.  They do not consider people living in motels — that they pay for themselves — to be homeless, so they are denied the services HUD is supposed to provide to those experiencing homelessness.  By simply excluding this whole group from their definition of homelessness, they can simply turn their backs on them.

A car is not a home.  Another eye-opener for me came when we served lunches in Englewood shortly after Covid struck.  A woman came to get her meal every day, driving a fairly new car, and she always looked well-dressed.

A volunteer commented:  “Why does she need a free meal?”  Yet the only thing we knew about her was the outward appearance of her car and clothes.  It became clear that she very well might be living in her car.  In the several years since then, I notice many, many cars which are filled with clothing and other items.  Look a bit more closely – notice cars parked in the corners of store and office parking lots at night.  It is a fact of life right under our noses.

A tent is not a home.  Most of us don’t see this as a major issue where we live.  But, as with the cars, look around.  When you see a tent, chances are it is not someone on a scouting trip.

A shelter is not a home.  Just ask the residents of the county shelter if they think where they live is “home” to them.  Over the years, I have spoken with hundreds of people who have lived in the shelter.  Not surprisingly, almost none of them has ever referred to the shelter as “home” like you or I talk about our home.

No, as the article in the Times says, a couch or motel or car or tent or shelter is NOT a home.  We – including our government and politicians – need to face this.  The fact is, most are in denial as to the extent of homelessness, particularly right in our own neighborhood and county.  We need to open our eyes, see that it is all around us, and acknowledge that this is a real problem that needs to be addressed.

The first step is to see.  At least then we might have an ability, and the will, to act.

Best regards,

Paul Shackford
President of the Board of Trustees