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'Hidden Homeless' Washed Out by the Storm

It was just one of the signs of how many people need housing—or are struggling to hold onto the homes they've got.

Joanne Bjornson was looking at a storm damage of a different type.

Just last week, Bjornson, the executive director of the Interfaith Council for Homeless Families of Morris County, based in Morris Plains, told her board that the waiting list for the agency's shelter had reached 30 families and 12 single women, the longest list since 2008.

Then Tuesday, she said, the list has added 10 more families.

Consider them refugees from the storms.

"These are the hidden homeless," she said.

They might be people who were displaced by the August flooding associated with Hurricane Irene when their homes were damaged—or families who were staying with other people whose homes suffered similar fates. Or families forced to move when their homes lost power in the recent snowstorm.

Either way, she said, the families needed shelter.

The storm may have shed new light on how much need exists in Morris County for affordable places for families to live, but it also showed how complex an issue it is.

Each day this week, Patch examines the lives of those whose economic truths are hidden by statistics that say Morris County's a place for the rich and comfortable, in "Morris' Working Class."

The cost of housing is a key element in the struggle for the working class to get ahead, the United Way's ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, and Employed) report said. The typical definition of "affordability," when it comes to housing, is no more than 30 percent of income.

And housing is one of the most threatened elements in the lives of the working poor, Bjornson said. The security of one's home can change in an instant for someone living a couple paychecks short of disaster—and that's roughly 30 percent of Morris County's population, according to the United Way report.

All it takes is a job loss, an illness or accident, Bjornson said.

Or a flood.

Think for a moment: How do you devise a plan that meets the demand for housing for groups as diverse as senior citizens, developmentally disabled persons making their own way, low-income families and individuals who need help getting started (or a place to live that is not in the woods or in someone's car)?

Places to live for young families starting out, for families who fall on hard times and need to sell their subdivision split-levels, for individuals and families seeking to move up and out of those starter apartments, for families of soldiers ending their tours of duty.

"The families who apply for Habitat housing want the American Dream and that dream includes buying a home," said Blair Schleicher Bravo, executive director of Morris Habitat for Humanity. "People apply for a Habitat home because they are essentially locked out of the home-buying process because their income is too low to purchase."

Most Morris Habitat applicants live and work in the county, Bravo said.

"They are paying $1,000 to $1,300 a month in rent on incomes that are too low to really support that rent and be able to put gas in the car, food on the table, or buy school supplies," Bravo said.

Robert Parker, executive director of NewBridge Services (which provides help in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, housing, youth service and senior citizen assistance), said his agency's clients would be using the services of other agencies if not for the housing opportunities NewBridge provides.

NewBridge housing allows clients to remain close to their jobs, friends, families, churches and neighborhoods, Parker said.

"They would likely make other arrangements, such as moving to lower cost neighborhods and driving for hours to secure a job," he said. "They might return to live with relatives, or worse, live on the street to be aided by shelters and social services for persons who are homeless."

The system, in the end, provides housing for families like the Detwilers of Boonton, who are scheduled to move into a renovated Habitat home in Pompton Plains in the spring, and for Jay Maggio, who finally found a home at the Morris County Housing Authority's Morris Township complex.

Amy Detwiler said she and her husband, David, had applied for the lottery for Habitat's Peer Place project in Denville, but were selected instead to become the owners of a three-bedroom home with a big yard.

David Detwiler is a teacher at and the couple has 5-year-old twins and a 1-year old.

"They all sleep in one bedroom," Amy Detwiler said. "This is the perfect home for us. Small bedrooms will be easy to keep clean and a big yard on a quiet street in a nice neighborhood."

She said the Habitat program is designed for families like theirs.

"Teachers at private schools don't make big salaries," she said.

The home is being gutted and will get a new roof, plumbing, electric and walls, she said. Much of the work is being done by members of the Jacksonville Chapel, and the family must contribute 300 hours of work on either their own home or another Habitat project, Amy Detwiler said.

The Habitat program includes a complete background check, she said, and provides homeowner education and support to ensure the family's success.

"We're very excited," she said.

Maggio admitted she was a spoiled child.

"I had two Italian parents who never said no," she said. "If I wanted a car, my father gave me $13,000."

The downside of that life, she said, was that she was ill-prepard to live on her own.

"I didn't even know how to write a check," she said. "I never had a job, and basically never did a thing for myself. They took care of me my entire life."

But she also never thought her comfortable life would end. And it ended in a crash after first her parents died 11 months apart in 1999 and 2001, and her brother died shortly thereafter

It had been quite a life, she said. Both parents had long working careers, but her father made a lot of money on the stock market, Maggio said. Everything was the best, she said.

But, she also said, with the indulgence came overindulgence, and she succumbed to a cocaine habit that had her scrounging Morristown's Hollow for drugs.

That was the start of a recovery, she said, that put her in contact with the Interfaith Homeless Council.

Maggio said that association led to drug rehab, Alcoholics Anonymous, counseling and therapy, where she said she is dealing with the grief over her brother's death. Interfaith counselors also helped her set up a bank account, and she saves $25 a week for a car.

And it led to a place to live, a job to do each week and new companions, including a young mother with three children.

"They are the light of my life," Maggio said. "They are very precious."

Now, at age 65, Maggio said, her life is making sense.

"I learned that people will help, but also that you have to help them," she said.

The Detwiler's new home is typical of how affordable housing gets build in Morris County.

It is rehabilitation, redevelopment.

Agencies are always on the lookout for vacant lots, older abandoned homes, perhaps some foreclosures, or older buildings that could be converted to housing.

NewBridge last year converted it's former headquarters into housing, and the Madison Housing Authority is building senior housing on the site of the former 1903 firehouse.

Habitat has coverted some foreclosures and donated homes in Boonton, Dover, Morristown and Jefferson to owner-occuped dwellings.

Homeless Solutions has taken vacant lots and shuttered homes in Morristown's Second Ward and towns like Washington Township, and built or renovated space into apartments that allow working families to move from inadequate apartments to energy efficient homes.

Dan McGuire, director of the Headquarters Development division of Homeless Solutions, said that the agency is feeling the pinch of funding sources drying up.

The state has not replenished a trust fund dedicated to the development of affodable housing, and with slower homesales over the past few years, the Balanced Housing fund filled by a fee for real estate transfers has less reseerves. It was dedicated this year instead to fill the state's budget gap.

The funding shortages are occurring, he said, when agencies such as his could be taking advantage of lower housing prices or foreclosures to develop projects.

Further, he said, municipalities willing to assist with projects are waiting on the rewrite of the state's affordable housing rules.

Instead of moving forward, he said, they sit on the sidelines.

parker November 10, 2011 at 12:27 AM
Great insight to a hidden issue! Well done! And thanks!

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