Many NJ Counties Fall Short on Obligations to Homeless People in Cold Weather

December 21, 2017

On Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, Groups praise Burlington, Hudson & Union, urge others to strengthen Code Blue plans

As temperatures drop, counties have a legal obligation to have plans in place to provide temporary warmth for homeless residents to escape the dangerously cold conditions. However, in recognition of National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, the ACLU-NJ and New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness have shared their findings through public records requests that several New Jersey counties fail to meet the minimum requirements of New Jersey’s Code Blue law.

The law, on the books since May 2017, requires counties to develop a “Code Blue alert plan” designed to protect New Jerseyans experiencing homelessness from weather-related exposure, which can prove fatal in our state’s harsh winters.

“Today, on National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, the responsibility counties have under the law to plan for cold weather emergencies takes on particular urgency. No New Jerseyan should lack access to warm shelter when the weather is this dangerously cold,” said ACLU-NJ Staff Attorney Alexi Velez. “Our law requires local governments to fill in gaps in access to shelter by providing warming centers, where people can safely escape the freezing cold, but apart from the law, it’s just the right thing to do.”

Some counties, such as Hudson, Burlington, and Union for example, have met their legal and ethical obligations by developing comprehensive Code Blue plans. However, other counties have failed to formally adopt any Code Blue plan, despite the fact that most of the state has already experienced triggering weather emergencies. Several other counties punt to municipalities, saying that each town would be responsible for the details their individual Code Blue responses, such as transportation.

Most counties rely extensively – if not exclusively – on volunteer organizations to provide services, which the law allows, but volunteer organizations often lack capacity to fully meet the needs of those counties’ populations. Some counties that rely heavily on volunteer groups do little more than provide a list of warming stations or phone numbers.

Hudson County in particular stands out as a model for other counties. Hudson not only provides warming centers, transportation, and social services, but it also funds proactive outreach in multiple languages.

New Jersey has already seen snow and temperatures at or below freezing this season, including overnight temperatures in the teens in mid-December.

“Counties have had more than six months to develop plans to protect their most vulnerable residents from the elements during emergency weather conditions. Despite that time to prepare, it remains an open question whether New Jerseyans in need of shelter will have access to potentially life-saving warming centers in many parts of the state,” said Kate Leahy, from the NJ Coalition to End Homelessness. “Counties should be treating extreme cold like other weather emergencies, which counties are far more prepared to handle.”

Earlier in December, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued a report indicating an increase in the number of veterans experiencing homelessness for the first time since 2010, and that the overall number of individuals experiencing chronic homelessness has risen 12 percent since 2016. Additionally, the Corporation for Supportive Housing has explained that the actual number of people currently experiencing homelessness is generally accepted to be three to six times higher than point-in-time reports reveal.

The report estimates that 8,536 New Jerseyans are currently homeless, a number too large for faith groups and nonprofits to provide shelter for alone. Within that population, there are 3,000 families, almost 500 unaccompanied young people, and more than 500 veterans.

“As we approach the holiday season and a new year, we’re reminded of our common humanity and the obligations we have to care for one another, including the responsibilities the law requires of us,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha. “Counties need to take stock of their services for residents experiencing homelessness and make sure that no one is left without lifesaving emergency resources for the remainder of this winter and beyond.”

In honor of Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, several counties will host vigils and other events throughout the state.

For a list of warming centers, visit http://www.nj211.org/nj-warming-centers.

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