Remembering the Homeless and Organizing to Make a Difference in Union County

December 26, 2019

Erin Jerome


What do the world’s religions tell us about the homeless and the needy?

Leaders of different faiths shared prevailing teachings on charity, generosity and poverty Thursday at Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Rahway. The memorial vigil honored the lives of people who have died due to homelessness in Union County.

The 4th annual vigil was held just before the longest night of the year, the winter solstice, to symbolize the struggle of those who are homeless and who often live out their lives on cold streets or in dangerous abandoned buildings.

The Union County Interfaith Coordinating Council organized the event with local agencies involved in the fight against homelessness: Community Access Unlimited and The Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless. CAU is a Union County-based, statewide nonprofit that strives to integrate people with disabilities and at-risk youth into the general community through comprehensive supports.

The city of Elizabeth is losing federal Housing and Urban Development funding in 2020 for homelessness-related services under the Emergency Solutions Grant initiative.

“The fact that we have lost this money in Elizabeth will increase demand for county funds that will be spread thinner,” said Carolee Marano, assistant executive director of development at CAU, which will lose $40,000 in grant funding. “The cuts in HUD funding decrease our budget for homeless prevention programs and we are concerned about a rise in homelessness in the county. We are also concerned about a rise in homelessness among youth.”

CAU operates the only youth-only shelter in Union County and runs services to support their health and future independence. In addition to the County youth shelter, CAU also operates 3 federal programs under the federal Runaway and Homeless Youth Act: one shelter, a transitional living program for females, and one for males. CAU also provides rent assistance to prevent homelessness.

Linda Flores-Tober, executive director of the Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless, reflected on circumstances that can push a person or family into homelessness.

“There’s more to the story than ‘I couldn’t find a job,’” Flores-Tober said. “What we see are a lot of people who didn’t get engaged in the Division of Developmental Disabilities system and now the parents are not able to take care of them.”

Flores-Tober attributed 5 deaths in Elizabeth to homelessness in 2019.

Faith speakers quoted teachings that the faithful are called by God to relieve the less fortunate of their trials or difficulties. Father Sebastian Obando of St. Michael’s Church in Cranford acknowledged that Jesus Christ would fit the modern description of homelessness.

“It’s really a service of remembrance, because frankly if we didn’t remember them, nobody would,” said Rev. Carmine Pernini of Zion Church.

Parishioners at his church took people in this winter as part of Operation Warm Heart – an emergency winter sheltering program run by the Elizabeth Coalition.

“It’s lifesaving work – not very many people are willing to open their doors, so people of faith come together to do it,” Pernini said.

Attendees sang and lit candles for 45 people who have died due to homelessness.

Pernini and Flores-Tober acknowledged the strong correlation between funding for homelessness services and saving people from the cold.

On the night of January 22, 2019, a total of 438 people were experiencing homelessness in Union County, according to the 2019 Point-In-Time Count. A total of 39 persons were unsheltered on the night of the count, and 375 of the total homeless persons were in Elizabeth.

Rev. Ron Thompson of Townley Presbyterian Church in Union spoke about the universal responsibility to care for people in need.

“All faiths agree on the dignity of people,” he said.