The Bergen County Housing Health and Human Services Center houses 90 residents//Samuel Desind

The Bergen County Housing Health and Human Services Center houses 90 residents//Samuel Desind

By Samuel Desind, Contributing Writer

Last week, I met with Julia Orlando, Director of the Bergen County Housing Health and Human Services Center which is located in Hackensack, New Jersey next to the Bergen County Jail. The Center opened in 2009 and provides housing for up to 90 homeless residents of Bergen County and distributes over 73,000 meals a year.

As I sat in Mrs. Orlando’s office, she received a phone call. A police officer from Oradell, New Jersey had just arrested a 23-year-old male we shall call “John.” John had been trespassing in an abandoned house on Kinderkamack Road. He was not looking to harm anyone or steal valuable belongings. Rather, he was looking for shelter, a roof to escape the elements. The officer informed Mrs. Orlando that the police were familiar with John, as they had picked him up several times before. At one time, he had been setting up a tent and taking shelter in local parks. More recently, he had been dating a woman in the area. When the relationship ended, John found himself homeless.

John was with the officer who was calling Mrs. Orlando and the officer briefly spoke with him on the other end of the call. Mrs. Orlando explained to me that homeless people in local suburban areas are a very common scenario here in Bergen County and many of them are young. As a result, her position with regard to allowing youths into the shelter had to change.

“The heroin epidemic, [in Bergen County] is worse than it has ever been before,” Mrs. Orlando stated. She went on to explain that the increase of available drugs such as prescription pills, heroin and other lesser known street drugs, such as synthetic marijuana, have caused major problems with the county’s youth population. She warns that the pure, strong and inexpensive heroin showing up in northern New Jersey will cause more problems.

Director Julia Orlando describes how the heroin epidemic in Bergen County has led to homelessness//Samuel Desind

Director Julia Orlando describes how the heroin epidemic in Bergen County has led to homelessness//Samuel Desind

In many cases, parents lose patience and deny residence to their own children, essentially pushing them onto the street where they are more likely to get involved in destructive activities. While it is not clear if drugs contributed to John’s situation, it did become apparent from Mrs. Orlando’s conversation with the police officer that John’s mother would not allow him to return home. Fortunately, the Oradell police officer graciously agreed to transport John to the shelter to receive a hot shower and a meal until she learned more about his situation.

Mrs. Orlando allowed me to wait until John arrived at the shelter. About 10 minutes later, he arrived and was directed to the cafeteria. John was wearing a black jacket, a black shirt, ripped jeans and carrying a black backpack containing all of his belongings. He looked scared, tired and lonely; smelling like he had not showered in weeks. His fingerprints were scanned to determine whether he had been to the shelter previously.

“How are you feeling today, have you eaten anything?” asked one of interns working on John’s intake paperwork.
“I had a doughnut this morning but that’s all I ate today,” he replied.
Another intern arrived at the table where we had sat down and handed John a juice box. Feeling a little better, John described to me his passion for creating music. Among his possessions was a laptop that he used to compose electronic music whenever he found a place to plug it in.

Meeting John and seeing the pain he was experiencing, made the 2013 statistic of the 431,549 New Jersey residents under 24 in poverty real to me, and even more heartbreaking that John has been homeless for five years. Previously, he had lived at a shelter in Union County, which he referred to as a “ghetto.” He also took shelter in Plainfield, where he said he watched someone die.

John had no access to food on a daily basis for several weeks. He is not alone in this regard. While many residents in Bergen County may not be homeless, for them food security remains a real concern. Donating food to local pantries is one way to help food insecure families in our community.

Director Julia Orlando and Phi Theta Kappa President Natalia Gonzalez take a look at the facility//Samuel Desind

Director Julia Orlando and Phi Theta Kappa President Natalia Gonzalez take a look at the facility//Samuel Desind

“I have nowhere else to go. I’m sick of this. I just hope they take me here,” John muttered, upset and frustrated with his predicament; not knowing if he will be allowed to stay at the shelter. Mrs. Orlando explained that municipalities within Bergen County have the ability to contract, or sell off, their affordable housing requirements to other towns, causing some areas of the county to lack much needed low income housing. It turned out that John was not a resident of Bergen County. He was given food, clothes and a shower, but was not allowed to remain at the shelter.

Phi Theta Kappa at Bergen Community College is now working with Mrs. Orlando to educate residents about the factors that are contributing to homelessness in Bergen County. Working with Brian Hemstreet, the Manager of Media Technologies at Bergen Community College, Phi Theta Kappa is producing a documentary highlighting how education is impacted by poverty and how education can be used as a means of redirecting the lives of our community’s youth to empower them to achieve brighter futures.

“We hope to host a seminar to help residents at the Center learn the basic skills needed to find employment and take advantage of opportunities such as financial aid and other assistance programs available at Bergen Community College,” states Natalia Gonzalez, President of Phi Theta Kappa.

It was by chance that I learned of John’s plight. This rare opportunity, provided by Mrs. Orlando, who does not regularly get involved in situations like John’s, exposed me to a common problem in this county; the issue of homelessness and hunger, which generally go unnoticed in the wealthiest areas of Bergen County and in our state.
Both homelessness and hunger require greater attention. Presently, the shelter’s 90 resident capacity is full and there is no sign that will change anytime soon.

The Kitchen Staff share their experiences at the Housing Center//Samuel Desind

The Kitchen Staff share their experiences at the Housing Center//Samuel Desind