Living outside in the cold: NJ counties try to count, help those experiencing homelessness

The first person they found wasn’t even on their list.

A woman huddled at a bus stop in the biting, 20-degree morning air, seated next to a shopping cart stuffed with bursting garbage bags.

The Bergen County workers hastily pulled over and grabbed their tote bag of supplies and a folder full of surveys. The woman wore leggings with a bright snowflake pattern, tan boots and a coat. Short hair framed her face, and a long blond ponytail hung down her back.

The woman refused the help they offered, shook her head at the ShopRite gift card they held. She said she didn’t think she was allowed to stay at the county shelter because she wasn’t a Bergen County resident.

“It’s Code Blue, ma’am. Anyone can go,” Shaun Hutchinson told her.

Hutchinson has been on the job for three months as Bergen County’s acting director of veteran services, and this was his first time counting New Jersey’s homeless for the annual point-in-time survey required by the federal government.

Hutchinson's was one of 12 teams that fanned out across Bergen County at 5 a.m. on Jan. 26, scouring the streets for people living or sleeping in places not meant for human habitation, relying on a list of tips from local police and community members.

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The answers they received — along with a count of people in shelters, transitional housing and hotels paid for by agencies — will determine how much money the federal government will pass out to communities to address homelessness and housing insecurity.

This year’s survey, whose results will be released in the fall, will be the first glimpse of homelessness since New Jersey’s eviction moratorium ended on Jan. 1. The Garden State is bracing for a future wave of people seeking shelter after being kicked out during a particularly frigid and dangerous winter.

Bergen County has activated Code Blue almost every night this month — a state order that opens up additional warming shelters with relaxed rules when the temperature drops below freezing or a certain windchill level. During last year's survey, a Bergen County worker discovered a man’s body along the Hackensack River, likely dead from the cold and poor health.

The count is not just about filling out a worksheet, but also an opportunity to offer those living outside help and shelter from the cold.

The woman at the bus stop told Hutchinson she was planning to go get some coffee. Hutchinson made a note to check on her later.

Inevitable undercount

As Hutchinson and Yahaira Padilla, his executive assistant, drove to different spots for an hour, the sky turned from an inky blue to a golden yellow and then a robin’s-egg blue, illuminating the urban skyline. The pair wove through parking lots, circled a handful of times around the back of buildings, peeked into a park's public bathroom. They stepped through brush, flashlights in hand, to approach a plastic tarp secured to sticks as a flimsy roof.

Hutchinson gestured toward paper wrappers on the floor. “This looks new, so hopefully they found someplace warm,” he said.

The annual survey's final report will inevitably be an undercount for many reasons — the methodology, the difficulty of finding people who don’t want to be found, and the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused some counties, including Bergen, to cancel events that normally coaxed people to the shelter for a haircut and a health checkup.

Last year, volunteers counted 8,097 people experiencing homelessness, a 16% decline from the 9,663 identified in 2020.

“We’re heavily relying on people letting us know where to go and look for people, as opposed to just generally going out there,” said Julia Orlando, director of the Bergen County Housing, Health and Human Services Center. “You want to make sure that your time is spent in known areas where you might find someone.”

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The annual national count doesn’t include people about to be evicted, families paying for their own hotel, or those being discharged from a correctional facility or hospital who don’t have a place to go.

It also doesn’t count people “doubled up” or staying with friends or family temporarily, which is often the first step before going to a homeless shelter or sleeping on the street, according to a 2017 analysis by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

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The U.S. Department of Education does count students experiencing homelessness: New Jersey schools reported 12,741 homeless students in the 2019-2020 school year, and a majority were living with friends and family.

Bergen County is starting to see more people leaving that sort of situation and heading to shelters.

“There's been a lot of pressure among families staying so close together, so we are getting people in the shelter that are not necessarily evicted, but they've been asked to leave,” Orlando said. “Predominantly, we have that kind of situation.”


It took 30 minutes of gentle questions, offers of help and chitchat before Hutchinson could coax a middle-aged man from his tent on an embankment overlooking a stream in southwest Bergen County.

Hutchinson slowly approached the tent, which was covered in tarps and surrounded by piles of multicolored bags, soda bottles, a camping chair, a charger and a shoe. Hutchinson jerked back quickly when he heard dead leaves start to rustle and then the pitter-patter of footsteps to his right.

A black cat scurried away. “Not cool,” he said under his breath.

Hutchinson tried to find a zippered door on the tent, calling, “I’m opening up. Can I help you?”

A quiet voice answered, “No, I’m good.”

Padilla hovered close by, clutching a navy folder containing the survey. Hutchinson began calling out questions, and Padilla recorded the answers. Hutchinson never used the word "homeless."

“How long have you been here?” Since before the winter, the voice responded.

“Where were you before this?” Another Bergen town.

“Were you in the same tent there?” No, a similar small shelter.

“Do you have any money?” What he makes as a handyman.

Birds cawed overhead and geese honked and fluttered their wings against the water.

“So who are you?” the man in the tent asked.

Shaun Hutchinson, right, and Yahaira Padilla, of Bergen County Veterans Services, talk with a homeless man who was sleeping in a wooded area in southwestern Bergen County on Wednesday Jan. 26, 2022. Bergen County Health and Human Services personnel travel throughout the county to find and document homeless individuals during the Point-in-Time homeless count.

“My name is Shaun Hutchinson. I work with Bergen County, and we’re just making sure that everyone’s safe. It’s very cold out here. We’d love for you to go somewhere even warmer if that’s possible, like a shelter.”

“No, I don’t think that’s a great idea,” the man said. “With this virus going around, people are dropping all over the place.”

The man said he was vaccinated at a store close by, but later lost his wallet. He was concerned he couldn’t get a booster without it. Getting a new ID is “another pile of problems,” he said.

He said he'd like help getting a new ID, but refused any other assistance that Hutchinson offered.

“I keep screwing up, it seems,” the man said. “Some do better than others. I do it well. I’ve taken help before but it never seems to stick.”

He didn’t need substance abuse treatment; he was “doing well” since a Passaic County shelter “got him clean” a decade ago. He didn’t need food or gift cards.

He didn’t want to go to therapy. “Believe it or not, I live a stress-free life more or less,” the man said. “And it’s the stress that screws me up. It could be better but it could be a lot worse.”

Hutchinson told the man he served 20 years in the Army and was deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq 11 times as a Ranger.

“But you came back,” the man said. “Good.”

Hutchinson sighed. “I didn’t come back whole. That’s what I’m saying. I get treatment for my wounds. It’s great that everyone — no matter how small they think it is — they should always get treatment.”

“I’ll come out,” the man said. He just needed to bundle up.

Shaun Hutchinson, right, and Yahaira Padilla, of Bergen County Veterans Services, talk with a homeless man who was sleeping in a wooded area in southwestern Bergen County on Wednesday Jan. 26, 2022. Bergen County Health and Human Services personnel travel throughout the county to find and document homeless individuals during the Point-in-Time homeless count.

A few minutes later, he ducked out of the tent. Someone passing him in a store or walking down the street would not suspect he lived by himself along a river under a pile of tarps, using sanitary wipes to keep clean.

He wore crisp dark jeans, a clean black coat and shoes, a gray hat with earmuffs placed over it, and a drawstring backpack. A sunrise of wrinkles fanned out around the corners of his eyes, crinkling more deeply when he smiled.

“You’re a good negotiator,” the man said.

“I’m not trying to force you to do anything,” Hutchinson replied.

The man accepted some hand warmers.

As they walked toward the street — the man on his way to work — he asked again about the shelter.

“Are they packed? I’d think a lot of people shuffling in and out would make it … untenable,” he said. “I’ll consider it. Spring is only seven weeks away.”

He smiled again and shook Hutchinson’s hand.

“You probably think I’m nuts,” the man said slowly, searching for the right words. “I’ve tried for years, decades, not to be anxious. Having the simplest life possible, that’s the key for me, just for the time being.”


Hutchinson slid into a chair at the table next to the woman from the bus stop, who now rested her forehead on her forearms, a foam cup and pastry in front of her.

“Hi, there,” Hutchinson said. “Remember me?”

She looked up at Hutchinson with recognition and told him she was charging her flip phone.

He offered supplies from the lime green tote bag a second time, and the woman accepted a blue blanket and a bottle of water.

Hutchinson said he would give the woman his contact information, and he ran outside to his car to grab a business card. The woman took out a bright shiny pink pen with a large plastic diamond on top to take notes.

“I like your pen,” Padilla said. “What are your plans for the day?”

“I may take a taxi to a hotel,” she replied.

Hutchinson returned with his card, writing on the back “211,” the statewide hotline for assistance.

“Call me any time if you need help,” he said.

New housing 'overpriced and out of reach'

On Tuesday in Paterson, 20 men and women — some carrying garbage bags, some pushing shopping carts — lined up along the fence in front of the Integrity Masonic Temple.

Volunteers from more than a dozen Passaic County community groups and churches bustled about, setting up folding tables under a large white tent with heaters inside, balancing a mountain of winter coats, laying out pairs of winter boots and displaying kits filled with masks, hand sanitizer and snacks.

The smell of turkey noodle soup wafted through the parking lot as workers spooned the warm liquid into cups and handed them around. A white van from the city department of health idled behind the booths, ready to give out COVID-19 tests and vaccines.

As in Bergen County the week before, teams of volunteers spread out throughout Passaic County on Tuesday at 4 a.m. to start the county's homeless count. But the “Homeless Connect” event in Paterson was another way to draw people to a single location so they could be counted in the homelessness survey. AmeriCorps members wore mustard-yellow beanies, holding clipboards and tablets, making their way down the line to ask the required questions.

Some in line said they weren’t homeless — they just needed a coat or a hot meal. Others didn’t know where they would sleep that night.

Jmarcus Baker, 47, stood off to the side clutching two grocery tote bags filled with clothes. He said he has been homeless for three years, moving between Paterson and Newark. He lost his ID card, which makes it difficult to get assistance or a job, as he had in done the past in construction, contracting, and shipping and receiving.

“I cry every day, because I know I can do better but without the identification, it’s really hard,” Baker said. “I lost my job, and drugs, and went through a lot of stuff with family — that really takes a toll.”

Mounir Almaita, division director at the Passaic County Department of Human Services, said it’s been difficult to help families move into stable homes.

“The real problem is the lack of housing inventory,” Almaita said. “We have a lot of people with vouchers, but there are no homes to be had. We need more low-income housing units. You see all these beautiful apartments going up, but a lot of it is overpriced and out of reach.”

Ashley Balcerzak is a reporter covering affordable housing and its intersection of how we live in New Jersey. For unlimited access to her work, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.


Twitter: @abalcerzak

This article originally appeared on NJ's homeless population counted in national survey report