Checking on the Warming Center at This "Point In Time"
On January 24, 2024, New Jersey conducted its annual Point-In-Time (PIT) count of the households experiencing homelessness in our communities to determine where those individuals find shelter, what their needs are, and what factors contribute to making them homeless. This count is meant to capture data on homelessness across the state for one day in January. The 2023 NJ PIT report can be found HERE.
The Clifton Health Department did the PIT count at the Clifton Warming Center on Main Avenue from 9 am to noon. Nate King, Social Services Assistant at the Warming Center, explained that the purpose of the count at each center is also to assess the need for Code Blue services. If a municipality has ten or more unhoused individuals for the PIT count, it means that a warming center and other supports will be provided under Code Blue for the next year. He explained that 25 people had come to the Warming Center during the PIT count, and that he had seen 60 unhoused individuals this year coming to use its services.
Code Blue: When temperatures drop below freezing and conditions pose a threat to unsheltered individuals, a network of agencies throughout New Jersey helps people obtain shelter. During times such as these, County Offices of Emergency Management together with municipal governments will often initiate and communicate a Code Blue Alert which enables authorities to make shelter arrangements for adults experiencing homelessness. The shelter arrangements may include the opening of warming centers for this specific need. The Code Blue activations, deactivations, and warming center listings can be found HERE. Code Blue runs from November 1st to March 31st.
The warming center is not a shelter; it is only open to unhoused individuals when temperatures are below freezing.
The Clifton Warming Center: Many public libraries, shopping centers, and senior activity centers serve as Warming Centers during business hours, but the Clifton Warming Center is available for after-hours and overnight. The warming center has 21 cots, with women sleeping in a separate area. Health Department officials will bring in warm meals and resources, and try to connect people with the needed services. John Biegel, Clifton’s Health Officer, said that over the last year, his staff had been successful in helping people get housing, education on substance abuse, and other resources. There is also a selection of coats, shoes, socks, and other clothing and toiletries, donated by the Clifton community, for anyone who might need them.
The Clifton Health Department: The Health Department is responsible for sheltering residents in need, whether that is during a Code Blue or during the flooding emergencies we have seen. Biegel explained that Clifton has a Social Services division, which was started last year. This division has eight employees who provide great programs to residents in need, often focusing on particular populations such as seniors, adolescents, those experiencing homelessness, and those with substance abuse issues. Many of the programs are grant-funded, with funding coming from the State of New Jersey and Passaic County. He spoke warmly of the late Councilwoman Murphy and her passion for ensuring that programs serving the most marginalized of Cliftonites be funded and of the importance of having an advocate for the unsheltered.
Services from Our Community: As people came in to be counted, they were met with warm smiles and a hot breakfast. Orlando Martes gave many of the women scarves as a gift from his mother as he interviewed them to assess their needs and how they became unhoused. The Health Department had a nurse and doctor available to help with any medical needs, there was a mobile shower unit to help those who needed a warm shower, and Kim Castellano of Power of One brought in backpacks containing blankets, coats, meals, and other things. Lucien Faber provided barber services and haircuts to those who wanted them, gently talking to people about their lives and making sure everyone could leave feeling well cared for and stylish. Passaic Prevention Is Key (PIK) brought resources for harm reduction and overdose prevention. Samantha Neville spoke of the services they offer throughout Passaic County, including a mobile unit that will help people access treatment services, family support, and case management services. For more on PIK please see HERE.
The Allwood Diner, St. Peter’s Haven, and George’s Coffee Shop provided a lovely selection of breakfast foods - bagels, eggs, bacon, and lots of hot coffee for the clients and the service providers. Biegel told us that Tracey from The Love of Grub was always down at the warming center providing hot meals for those in need.
Stories From Our Community: As we all chatted, several women shared their stories of becoming unhoused. Janet spoke of losing her housing after a car accident and now being forced to sleep in her car. She is disabled and receives SSI, but that is not enough to be able to find housing and she has to use the money for the medical bills that her insurance will not cover. She told me that people treat her and other unhoused individuals like they’re bad people but that they’re just looking for a place to stay dry and warm. She told me that living in her car makes her ask herself every night, “Am I going to survive tonight?” When temperatures drop, people living in cars cannot keep warm enough and she spoke of waking up to find her skin going purple from cold and feeling her blood pressure drop, causing confusion. Even struggling as she does, her greatest joy is being of service to others and finding a way to give a warm smile and a kind word to those who need it.
Deborah is on the streets with her adult daughter, who struggles with her health. She is a longtime Clifton resident who worked for the city for 18 years. They have been homeless since last May but have struggled to obtain benefits because they do not have a mailing address. Deborah talked of applying for all the services but was told repeatedly that there were no beds available for her and her daughter. She spoke of being harassed by men and made to feel unsafe as they slept on the concrete under wet blankets, and of being asked to leave hospitals, where they had gone in the hopes of getting warm and healing from the illnesses they contracted sleeping outside in the cold.
Another visitor told us that she is employed at a local mall and that despite working full time, she doesn’t see how she could save up enough to be able to get housing, where several months’ rent is often expected at lease signing. She spoke of going to see apartments only to find out that they were scams and not available for rent. She and her husband lost their housing after contracting Covid-19 and not being able to stay current with bills.
Biegel explained that many of us are just one medical bill, one accident, or one lost job away from being unhoused, and that as the housing shortage in our area continues to deepen, more and more people will need the services provided by the warming center and shelters. Our local businesses, government, and citizens will need to come together to provide shelters, services, and other support to our unhoused residents to truly be The City That Cares.