“Help is on the way. I really mean it,” Phil Murphy told the crowd at JESPY House in South Orange, which offers programming and housing for 250 adults who have learning and developmental disabilities and need specialized support to retain their independence.
On Oct. 31, just one week before the NJ gubernatorial election, the Democratic nominee spent 30 minutes speaking with approximately 100 people, including JESPY clients, their families, board members, and community residents, emphasizing his support for programs to help people with disabilities.
While introducing Murphy, JESPY Executive Director Audrey Winkler was emotional as she said, “We really want this to start a conversation.” Afterward she told NJJN, “It’s great because it gives us hope we’ll have a voice in Trenton, something we haven’t had, especially regarding funding.”
In his remarks, Murphy said improving mental health programs require more than financial considerations. “This is a tough situation in New Jersey and it’s a tough situation in the country in terms of funding for programs like JESPY House,” he said. “Every time you turn around, it feels like funding is drying up.”
He added, “We have to reorder our priorities and do what we used to do really well…There was a time when the government had the backs of the folks who need it most. It used to be the American way.”
Many of the questions poised to Murphy focused on funding. “I want to stay in the community but it’s hard. I need help,” said Debra. “What’s going to happen if there is no JESPY? I’ve been living here 27 years.” (The last names of JESPY clients have been omitted to protect their privacy.)
Others asked why the NJ Division of Developmental Disabilities does not provide the same level of services or the same level of reimbursement for services as it has in the past. In his answers, Murphy said that much of the problem is a result of the current administration turning a blind eye to those in need. “Has the governor ever come here? The lieutenant governor?”
Murphy said he is sensitive to the needs of JESPY House because his niece has disabilities. “My sister lived this year in and year out,” he said.
Sitting in the audience was Sadie, 32, who said she has autism. “I vote for candidates who will protect people with autism,” she said. She told NJJN she has voted since she was in high school. “I want candidates who will stand up for my beliefs and protect my rights.” Addressing Murphy, she said she feared what would happen without a place like JESPY. “I don’t want to live with my mother. I’m 32 years old.”
Murphy’s visit was the culmination of a month of events designed to educate JESPY clients about the election. It began Oct. 3 with a voter registration drive, conducted in partnership with SOMA Action. On that day, in a prepared statement, Winkler said: “With so many policy and benefits changes in New Jersey, our clients increasingly understand that they need to vote to effect change. Today’s voter registration drives empower them and help them become strong advocates for the issues they care about and for their rights.”
As a follow up to the drive, and in the hours before Murphy’s visit, about 25 clients at the day program participated in a ballot-education discussion led by JESPY House day-program coordinator Erika Rusnak-Hensz and day-program facilitator Mike DePoy. They discussed everything from why voting matters to what to expect upon arrival at the polling site and when inside the voting booth. At least 12 hands went up when asked who among the group would be voting in the Nov. 7 election.
“If you don’t vote, how can you have your voice heard?” Susan said in response to a question about why people should vote.
Nancy (a pseudonym used at her parent’s request) added that voting is a good way to bring “new ideas” to the table, and said, “We’re all equal when we vote, even if you’re purple…At the end of the day, people with disabilities are like everyone else. We just want to be heard.”
During the frank discussion JESPY, clients asked questions about the voting process. For one, it was “Is it a lot of money to vote?” (It’s free.) Another wondered, “Can some people, like homeless people, vote too?” (Yes, they can use the address of a shelter to register.)
And in response to a question about how to get a politician to pay attention to blocs of voters, Sadie exclaimed, “By voting!”
Matthew said he figured out where to vote by reading a flyer that came in the mail, “and that you have to check in and tell them who I am,” and Sadie described how the curtain in the voting booth closes for privacy.
For Nancy, voting comes with practice; she said that before she goes into the booth, she and her father practice which buttons to press.
After reviewing the state’s two ballot questions and a conversation about whether people in other countries vote and what happens to the people who don’t win after the election (they go back to work), staff talked about how, within JESPY, clients vote on a weekly basis — they democratically select which movie to watch.
Rusnak-Hensz reminded the clients that there’s another candidate, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno (R), running for governor (Guadagno was invited to participate but did not respond, according to Winkler). Also attending were Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-27), Essex County freeholder president Britnee Timberlake (D-3), and Assembly candidate and Union County Freeholder Bruce Bergen (D-21).
Rusnak-Hensz told the JESPY clients that when they vote, “You are not voting to agree with everyone and make people happy, but to say what you want for the state. So do your research.”