Irvington among towns questioning ‘forgotten families’ program

Photo Courtesy of Connie Jackson
A thermometer reading below freezing, reflecting the temperature in a house that is part of the Special One Time Assistance program during the middle of the winter.

IRVINGTON, NJ — Irvington, East Orange and Orange are taking action in response to a controversial New York City program that relocates homeless families from city shelters and into dilapidated homes here in New Jersey. Local mayors have had enough.

New York City’s Department of Homeless Services’ Special One Time Assistance program, or SOTA, aims to help homeless families by offering eligible residents a full year’s rent to move within or outside New York City, but local mayors are asking if the program does more harm than good. The “forgotten families,” as they were referred to in a recent CBS News report, are being placed in New Jersey, and while the city pays rent up front for the families, some landlords are apparently providing housing without heat and hot water, and other problems.

Irvington Mayor Tony Vauss, East Orange Mayor Ted Green and Orange Mayor Dwayne D. Warren are joining Newark Mayor Ras Baraka to protest the program, saying it is leaving people abandoned in New Jersey. In a statement, Baraka strongly opposed the SOTA program, saying it is creating a burden for Newark.

According to the Newark Mayor’s Office, New York City has reportedly sent approximately 1,172 homeless families to Newark, which has the potential to double Newark’s homeless population.

According to a quote sent to the Irvington Herald from the Newark Mayor’s Office on Thursday, Dec. 5, “Mayor Baraka and (New York City) Mayor (Bill) de Blasio are making plans to meet and discuss the situation. The date is undetermined, and Mayor Baraka would like to withhold any comment until after that meeting takes place.”

According to Irvington Mayor Tony Vauss, moving homeless people around is a temporary solution.

“It’s important that people from all walks of life have safe, clean and decent housing,” Vauss told the Irvington Herald on Saturday, Nov. 30. “This program creates a temporary fix to a major problem of the homeless. People need additional resources after the one year, such as job training and alternative means to take care of their families. This should’ve been taken into consideration when adopting such a program. People are now having their yearly rent paid up in advance and, at the end of the program, return back to the state they were in before the program. This is unacceptable.

“I’m currently working together with the mayors of Newark, East Orange and Orange and we’re working on solutions on how to deal with such a situation,” Vauss added.

Mayor Warren said people should only be placed in decent living spaces.

“Homeless people are human beings and not commodities, and should be treated as such,” Warren told the Irvington Herald in a phone interview on Thursday, Dec. 5. “We should be looking at decent housing for them, social services for them, and nourishing an educational environment for their children. Those are the ingredients to a sound and wholesome homelessness policy.

“The current situation, where homeless people are being sent out of their homeless environments with a limited subsidy for housing, falls well short of what we should be doing as a community and as a nation,” he added.

Based on the data from New York City and the SOTA program, 263 East Orange residents are unidentified within the city, according to Green.

“We are not anti-homeless people,” he said in a phone interview with the Irvington Herald on Monday, Dec. 9. “We are working with a coalition of people, groups and nonprofit organizations to rectify this situation.”

Green said he feels strongly about the topic and explained his concerns.

“In East Orange, we have been addressing the issue of homelessness by working with a strong network of partners that can help create a plan that transitions people into permanent residency,” Green said in a quote sent to the Irvington Herald on Thursday, Dec. 5. “We welcome any family that needs a home; however, it is our duty as a municipality to make sure these families are living in safe, habitable conditions and have access to the local resources they need. That is where New York falls short. The SOTA program can be successful, but only if New York City reaches out to relocation cities to make it work and abide by the housing laws of that city. As it is now, there is absolutely no process in place that tracks the success or sustainability of this program.”

“They are sending people to our communities, paying landlord’s a full-year’s rent and washing their hands of the situation,” he continued. “What we are finding in East Orange is that, after the year is up, many of these families are homeless again. The negligence of this program must stop, or else New York City will have single-handedly spread their homeless issue across America.”

“On Dec. 11, representatives of the Mayor’s Office had a meeting with the New York City Office of Intergovernmental and Legislative Affairs and Mayor DeBlasio’s Office,” according to a statement from Vauss’ office sent to the Irvington Herald on Thursday, Dec. 12. “The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the Special One-Time Assistance Program. The meeting was requested by the New York City Office of Intergovernmental and Legislative Affairs. In the meeting, we emphasized and agreed that homelessness is a regional issue and is not one unique to a specific municipality.

“Our goals were to: first, have all questions regarding the logistics of SOTA answered in detail; second, identify how New York City will move forward with fostering open communication with Irvington; and third, emphasize the issues and concerns the township has with the program as it currently functions.

The statement continued, “The results of the meeting were mostly positive, as many of our questions were answered and our concerns addressed and taken into further consideration. There are plans to have another discussion in the near future to continue building a positive relationship with New York City and to continue advocating for the safety of our residents and township.”