Middlesex County religious leaders and their congregants came together to launch a homelessness awareness campaign and hear success stories and possible solutions to the problem.
The Feb. 27 meeting at Temple Emanu-El in Edison sprang from a decision by the Metuchen Edison Interfaith Clergy Association to broaden its educational projects beyond its annual Martin Luther King and Holocaust Remembrance Day programs.
“Tonight we all took the next step,” Rabbi Deborah Bravo of Emanu-El said. “It’s not about what Jews say about homelessness, or what Muslims say about homelessness, or what Christians say about homelessness. We’re all on the same page. We can move forward together and can accomplish more than any one faith house.”
After explaining the concept of tikun olam, or repairing the world, Bravo said, “If we can keep one teen, one veteran, or 20 others off the streets, then we have accomplished our goal.”
The Rev. Richard Ruch of the Reformed Church of Metuchen, who served as moderator, called homelessness “an invisible problem.” He said the county listed 5,700 people as homeless, a figure that panelists agreed was probably conservative.
The figure includes 800 school-age children, said Elizabeth Hance, a vice president of the United Way of Central Jersey and vice chair of Coming Home of Middlesex County, a nonprofit formed two years ago. Its charge is to implement the county’s 10-year plan to end homelessness by partnering with government and private entities.
“No one can say that a six-year-old bears any responsibility for the plight he finds himself in,” said Hance. Religious institutions, she said, have a vital role to play in transforming “homelessness into hopefulness” by offering support and advocating on their behalf with elected representatives.
The Rev. Delores Davison , associate pastor at New Hope Baptist Church in Metuchen, runs a program that distributes blankets — she estimated 1,300 had been given out the previous week — clothing, hot chocolate, and coffee to the homeless.
What she founds most “heartbreaking” is being accompanied on her rounds by police — not for protection, but because children found living in cars with their parents by law must be turned over to the state Division of Youth and Family Services.
“Where do you find the homeless?” asked Davison. “You find them in the back of your homes, in any alley, in back of your children’s school, in back of your churches and synagogues, down at the train station.”
Calling it a fallacy that many homeless “elect” to live on the streets, the Rev. Tamara Davis, interim pastor at Stelton Baptist Church in Piscataway, said that a number of them, especially teens and women, are fleeing physical and sexual violence. Davis is a counselor with the Edison-based Making It Possible to End Homelessness, working with recently homeless HIV/AIDS sufferers and women and children who have fled abuse.
Geneva Evans of Perth Amboy put a face to homelessness, describing her 25 years on the streets. She told the gathering about her drug addiction and that as a young teen she ran away from home, where she was sexually and physically abused. Twice she moved in with men who beat her, but stayed because she had nowhere else to go. Although she managed to get a job and a place to live, she again become homeless after contracting diabetes and losing her job.
She described herself as “a walking miracle,” citing the medical care she received from the Jewish Renaissance Medical Center in Perth Amboy and the assistance offered by her church.
“I got saved in 2006 because this time the community helped,” said Evans, who went on to write a memoir, From Agony to Grace, and is now a criminal justice major at Kean University.
The Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale of the Reformed Church of Highland Park outlined his congregation’s nonprofit housing corporation, which has built 28 units in the town for homeless veterans. It also includes a home for a mother and her family, maintains six units for young women who have aged out of the foster care system, and is developing 10 units in Newark for youths suffering from a disability and involved with the justice system.
His congregation’s shared sense of purpose and values have benefitted it in unexpected ways.
“Literally,” he explained, “we have felt our connection to God is so much stronger when we have done things that help others.”