How does Mercer business benefit if the rising numbers of homeless are no longer a burden on Mercer taxpayers?
Last year's 900 and this year's 1,899 homeless individuals, almost half of them children, cost Mercer County on average $2,300 per month in shelters or transitional housing. Others share housing with family of friends while trying to pull their lives together after losing everything in an eviction or foreclosure. Still others share housing in crowded conditions in order to afford living in the town where they work. Annually far more is spent than the $8 to $12 million reported by the board of social services. Investing in workforce housing rather than spending tax dollars on shelter will benefit everyone. Motels cost three times the cost of a rent subsidy to keep families in housing.
Huge societal costs occur in the lost education opportunities and potential behavioral problems of the homeless children. In fact, research on homeless families and foster children find that 30 percent of shelter residents were foster children without a stable home, or had been homeless as children. Until we fight the causes of homelessness directly, we will be creating new generations at risk of homelessness.
Another huge cost of homelessness is found in the emergency room. The ER is a revolving door for many mentally and physically fragile homeless with no health care and limited employability. Reductions in family care have ballooned the numbers of families relying on the ER for their entire medical needs. A San Diego study of 15 chronic street homeless people found that, even in a place where sleeping on the beach year round is a viable option, these 15 individuals cost the city over $3 million in police, jail, and hospital services in just 18 months. This is the most expensive form of healthcare paid for by "charity care" underwritten by tax dollars and amounts tacked onto healthcare policies paid for by employers and individual policy holders.
More directly, area businesses incur huge turnover costs when employing low-wage workers. These costs are often caused by lack of adequate transportation, childcare, and health care as well as the stress of juggling housing and utility costs exceeding 50 percent of gross incomes. When low wage workers leave or miss work due to illness or child care problems, it costs employers time and money directly and even more to recruit and train replacements.
Do the math. If we use the same standard used by banks, mortgage companies, HUD, and apartment owners, a household should not pay more than 30 to 40 percent of income on housing. Since 25 percent of Mercer employees earn less than $23,370, they can afford no more than $584 in rent or mortgage. But an average Mercer rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $977 a month, according to National Low Income Housing Coalition's 2004 "Out of Reach Report." A $39,000 income is needed to afford it. Even efficiencies and one-bedrooms average more than $700 and $800.
Does New Jersey's definition of affordable housing provide housing for these working families or those at continual risk of homelessness?
In Mercer, a family of three must earn $31,474 a year to qualify for "affordable" rental housing. A single person would need to earn $24,479. Until this year no "affordable" units were required for incomes below $31,000. Now only 10 percent of "affordable" units are required to be this low.
Jobs that pay salaries below that range include cashiers, teacher's aides, food service workers, childcare workers, home health aides, retail clerks, and lawn and cleaning service personnel - the very people we count on every day to provide a host of vital services and to take care of our children, our sick, and our elderly. Without their help the rest of us could not function smoothly. So homelessness is not only their problem, but also our problem.
The Mercer Alliance is part of a national effort of 190 other jurisdictions determined to end homelessness. Our 10-year plan, published in June, 2004, is still the first plan in New Jersey.
The Mercer Alliance to End Homelessness was created to prevent homelessness, to eliminate the causes of homelessness and ultimately end it within 10 years. It is a unique collaboration of 150 Mercer organizations. Many of them have all they can do to meet the emergency shelter and hunger needs of the working poor, the disabled and the unemployed.
So the Mercer Alliance was formed as a think tank to propose new ways to create housing, to develop prevention programs, to provide services to its partner organizations, and create the awareness needed to support the construction of truly affordable housing. It will cost us as taxpayers far less - perhaps one-third as much - to prevent homelessness than it does to continue to treat its symptoms and pay for long-term consequences.
How can we end homelessness in Mercer County? We can support the initiatives of the Alliance to create a pilot prevention programs with the courts, to create a county land bank to purchase and preserve land for workforce housing. If we can do it for open space, we can do it to reduce the cost of housing. We can develop a Housing Trust Fund to combine private, public and corporate investments to fund truly affordable permanent homes. A two-cent increase on the county tax would produce $600,000 a year to support workforce housing. Incentives can be designed to induce businesses to donate to the Housing Trust Fund. We are raising awareness of the vast disparity between income and housing cost. This will require an outpouring of community-wide support and demand for change.
What can businesses do to help? Forbes ranks Mercer County the 21st best in the nation in which to do business. Mercer employers also have an obligation to invest in their employees to address self-sufficient wages, transportation, health and childcare needs. Business will benefit as turnover drops, absenteeism declines, and productivity increases. We need to create a partnership between businesses, government and agencies serving the homeless or low-wage workers.
The Mercer Alliance has a vision of our county where no child or individual lacks the security of a safe place to sleep, eat, and study and dream of a real future. You can help us realize this dream by joining our efforts. Go to www.merceralliance.org to see how you can help us end homelessness.
Mary Ellen Marino is interim executive director of the Mercer Alliance to End Homelessness.