Christie expands rental voucher program for the homeless

During Wednesday’s visit to Robins’ Nest in Glassboro, Gov. Christie listened to participants of the center’s “Keeping Families Together” program during a roundtable discussion.

New Jersey will issue an additional 500 housing vouchers as part of an effort to stem homelessness, Gov. Christie said Wednesday.

During a visit to Robins' Nest, a services agency in Glassboro, the governor expressed a commitment to reducing homelessness, including through a state initiative intended to better coordinate services for people who are chronically homeless.

"I know New Jersey is filled with compassionate citizens who believe this is part of the role of government to play," he said.

Christie touted "really incredible progress" in reducing homelessness in New Jersey, citing a 41 percent decline between 2007 and 2015. Anti-homelessness advocates said the numbers didn't tell the full story - saying they didn't account for people sleeping on couches, for instance, or families doubling up.

"The Christie administration has made homelessness in New Jersey far worse - not better," said Jeff Wild, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness. "Tragically, about a year ago, this administration launched a campaign to cut back on emergency assistance: the last resort for our most vulnerable adults and children, including tens of thousands of homeless statewide."

The state says there were 10,211 people who were homeless in 2015, down from 14,078 in 2011.

"The numbers don't lie, and they tell the story of the success we have had in taking on this challenge proactively," said Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for Christie. "We continue to try to improve those results every day. It's sad that some would try to twist that reality into a political opportunity and attack, and use phony numbers to do so."

Roberts said there was a reduction in funding for emergency assistance in the governor's budget, related to "federal trend assumptions and estimates."

Regarding the vouchers, the Department of Community Affairs "anticipates $5.4 million in annualized funding" for the 500 vouchers, Christie said. He said 400 would go to chronically homeless families and 100 to homeless veterans.

Christie didn't take questions at the event. State officials didn't respond to questions on how many vouchers the state currently issues. Housing advocates said they believed the number was about 4,000.

At one point, "it was 5,000," said Serena Rice, executive director of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey. She said the voucher program recently had been subject to flat funding, which "is really reduced funding" as housing prices increase.

With the new housing vouchers, "it's life-changing for the families that get it," Rice said. But resources are needed for more people, she said. She noted a bill on Christie's desk that would remove time limits on emergency assistance for people who are permanently disabled, caring for a disabled dependent, over 60, or chronically unemployable.

According to a statement by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services accompanying the bill, pilot programs run by the state that had granted certain people additional aid beyond the initial 12 months of emergency assistance were discontinued in July 2015. More than 3,000 low-income individuals "were left without rental assistance," the office said.

The office estimated the bill would result "in a minimum $15 million increase" in state spending each year for the first three years, and a long-term increase in costs.

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