HUNTERDON COUNTY, NJ - From a surge in Hunterdon County residents picking up food at the Flemington Area Food Pantry to guidance on applying for assistance with utility payments and the Code Blue cold weather homelessness outreach with Hunterdon Helpline, the county is keeping abreast of social issues and creative solutions to help those in need as the COVID-19 pandemic, business and workplace closures have impacted many western New Jersey residents.

The economic downturn in the state has resulted in some alarming statistics at the local level, though among New Jersey counties north of the state capitol, Hunterdon has one of the lowest homeless populations.

Deputy Freeholder Director Susan Soloway updated her colleagues and the community on the Hunterdon County Department of Human Services initiatives, including outreach for families and individuals in need as the holidays, winter weather and new year approaches.

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Soloway said that over 400 newly enrolled Hunterdon families are now serviced by, and participating in receipt of donations from, the Flemington Food Pantry, none of whom required the assistance prior to the pandemic. She explained this as "disturbing information to report, due to the state's economy being shut down."

The Freeholder Board has had heavy criticism for Gov. Phil Murphy’s choices and executive orders related to economic measures and impacts statewide. Soloway noted the troubling ripple effect of economic halts seen throughout the state.

“People are out of work,” she said. “They can be driven into poverty as more and more businesses close, and there’s a greater pressure on Social Services to serve as a safety net for individuals who, through no fault of their own, have been caught up in the overly-cautious reopening of the state. Another area where people are out of work or seriously stressed is the payment of utility bills. Now that the colder weather is here, we all know that keeping the heat on is very important. The good news is that the State of New Jersey Utilities’ Shut Off Moratorium has been extended and customers are urged to contact their utility providers to make payment arrangements.”

According to a press release from the governor’s office on Oct. 15, Murphy signed an executive order extending the moratorium by six months, through at least March 15, 2021, preventing New Jersey residents from having their utilities disconnected. The moratorium is applicable to all residential gas, electric and water utilities, both public and private, according to the governor’s office.

Soloway spoke about resources for utility payment assistance available to residents through Social Services.

Residents can call NORWESCAP Housing and Energy Services at 908-454-4778, to learn about the qualifications for utility assistance. Norwescap provides several assistance programs, including its LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program); Weatherization Assistance Program; the “USF” Universal Service Fund; and a Safe & Affordable Housing program to pursue utilities payment assistance. Eligibility information is available online at Norwescap.org.

In addition, Soloway announced that the County Division of Social Services can be reached at 908-788-1300 for further information on utilities assistance.

Soloway also commented on the Code Blue program through the Hunterdon Helpline contract the board approved at a previous meeting, which sheds more light on socioeconomic problems people are facing in the area.

In September, authorization was unanimously approved for Freeholder Director Shaun C. Van Doren to execute a provider services contract with Hunterdon Helpline for the provision of a “Code Blue Warming Center” for the period of Oct. 1, 2020 through Sept. 30, 2021, and allocated $29,640 in funding. Van Doren said that changes to state legislation “moved Code Blue declarations from 25 degrees to 32 degrees.”

“When a Code Blue is declared based upon weather predictions, the law requires that some type of warming stations be activated for the homeless, no matter how few there are,” he said last month.

As part of that board approval, additional funding for an excess of 80 code blue nights is “expressly conditioned upon funding availability and level of service achievement,” the September resolution said.

Soloway reported that, at the start of the year, and notably taking place over a pre-pandemic timeframe, a consulting service for the State Human Services Department completed a “Point in Time”” snapshot of the statistics of homeless persons and families.

“As of Jan. 28 2020, there were 176 households, including 203 persons, experiencing homelessness in the county, a total of 51 persons in 46 households were identified as chronically homeless,” she said. “And 24 unsheltered persons were identified on the night of the count. Hunterdon County took on this responsibility, contracting with Hunterdon Helpline as a shared service with our 26 municipalities because there is a better economy of scale at the county level. Following last month’s Freeholder Board action for Code Blue Warming Centers, I was asked by some people about the homelessness situation throughout the county. While we have a small number in comparison to other New Jersey counties, there is still a requirement for our municipalities to provide shelter to these homeless when there’s low winter temperatures.”

Soloway said the county is stepping in to help because it defrays the cost for the 26 municipalities to pay for shelter. She said the partnership with Hunterdon Helpline not only aligns in the organizational mission of “protecting those who are most vulnerable as part of the county and municipal shared service, but Hunterdon Helpline will also make available its wraparound social services to aid the chronic homeless in an effort to move those persons to a better life position.”

Soloway noted that while Code Blue provided the municipalities with yet another unfunded State of New Jersey mandate to comply with, “offering no related financial support, Hunterdon County is doing its job, once again, because it is the right thing to do.”