When superstorm Sandy blew through Lakewood in 2012, a tree crushed Will Brown’s dwelling. Brown’s dwelling was made not of brick and mortar, but of nylon and twine.
That distinction doesn’t matter to homeless advocates, who are urging former residents of Tent City — a homeless camp in the woods of Lakewood that has since shuttered — to apply for two years of federal housing vouchers meant to help low-income Sandy victims.
“I lost everything that I owned to Sandy,” said Brown, 51, who could not rebuild the tent. “A generator, a TV set, a DVD player, clothing, canned foods – it was all destroyed.”
The thought of people who were homeless before Sandy taking advantage of the Sandy Tenant-Based Rental Assistance Program is “totally absurd,” said Diane Mazzacca, whose home in Beach Haven West was severely damaged by Sandy.
“I’m so livid, I could spit nails,” Mazzacca said. “New Jersey wants to pay for social services on the backs of Sandy victims.”
Housing advocates see nothing extraordinary about the homeless getting the Sandy help. The superstorm impacted not only property owners and long-term renters, but those in unstable housing situations, said Adam Gordon, an attorney with the non-profit Fair Share Housing Center, one of several organizations encouraging the homeless to apply for the 1,400 TBRA vouchers, which will total $32 million.
In the storm’s aftermath, competition for short-term rental locations became fierce, as those living on the margins of society tried to compete with people with deeper pockets, Gordon said. The region’s depressed economy also limited employment options for many, he said.
“The homeless should be as eligible for this funding as those who are working poor,” Gordon said.
After the application period closes on April 6, the state Department of Community Affairs – which is administering the TBRA program – will use a lottery method to select potential applicants from the pool of applicants, said Lisa Ryan, a spokeswoman for the department.
DCA will then verify the selected applicants’ eligibility and begin moving them through the process to receive the assistance, should they qualify for it, she said.
“People living in (Tent City) may be eligible to receive assistance through the program, provided they can demonstrate that they lived in one of the nine most impacted counties at the time of the storm and meet the program’s other eligibility criteria,” Ryan said.
Applicants must qualify as low-to-moderate income, which means their household gross income must be at or below 80 percent of the area median income for their county.
In Monmouth and Ocean counties, the program’s income limits are $48,850 for a single person, $55,850 for a family of two, $62,800 for a family of three and $69,800 for a family of four, according to state documents.
In Middlesex County, the program’s income limit is $56,300 for one person, $64,300 for a family of two, $72,350 for a family of three and $80,400 for a family of four, according to the documents.
The other six counties are Atlantic, Bergen, Cape May, Essex, Hudson and Union.
DCA will prioritize applicants whose household gross incomes are at or below 30 percent of the area median income for their county. Those who Sandy directly displaced will also receive priority, according to state documents.
Those who are selected will receive vouchers – not cash – to pay for their housing and will be responsible for paying approximately 30 percent of their rent, Ryan said. The amount they receive will depend on their income and on where in New Jersey they live, she said.
Applicants must also not be receiving any type of housing subsidy when they apply to the program, according to state documents.
Should former Tent City residents receive the vouchers, it could prove to be a way to extend their residency in apartments currently being paid for by Lakewood taxpayers, said Michael McNeil, executive director of the non-profit Solutions to End Poverty Soon, or STEPS.
As part of a court agreement for shuttering Tent City – which was located on township-owned land – Lakewood agreed to pay to house the camp’s residents for up to one year.
Former residents like Brown, who was relocated to an apartment last January, have already begun to run out of time and are in danger of finding themselves back on the streets, McNeil said.
The last of Tent City’s residents were placed in apartments in June, when the camp shuttered.
“We’re trying to encourage them to apply, but this is a community that can be hard to reach,” said McNeil of the former Tent City residents. STEPS is also encouraging other people who are homeless to apply for the vouchers, he said.
Paul Hulse, outreach director of the non-profit HAVEN, Inc., said he has personally helped fill out TBRA applications for 10 to 15 former Tent City residents. Those with roofs over their heads were not the only victims of Sandy, he said.
“All the elements came against them,” said Hulse of the homeless. “People are struggling not just from the storm, but from the storm of life.”
Using Sandy money for the homeless does not sit well with many of those who attend the Ocean County Long Term Recovery Group’s monthly meetings, said Sue Marticek, its executive director.
When the topic has come up, many have expressed frustration that the money could potentially be used to benefit a situation that existed before the storm, rather than to assist the thousands of New Jersey residents who are still not back in their homes and are renting temporarily, she said.
“It would be nice to see Sandy money actually go to Sandy recovery and be used wisely,” Marticek said. “So many people are still so far from getting home.”
Gert Sofman is one of those people.
Sofman considers herself homeless, as she has to live in her daughter’s living room after Sandy destroyed both her home and her organic produce business in Highlands.
After months and months of frustrations with FEMA officials, insurance agents and the DCA, Sofman says she has all but given up trying to rebuild her home and save it from foreclosure. She is concentrating her efforts on rebuilding her Bay Avenue business and on adding an apartment above, where she would live.
“I don’t want to see any of the people in Tent City back in that circumstance,” Sofman said. “But people like me really need that money. I’m broken. I’ve lost it.”
Brown, the former Tent City resident who lost his tent to Sandy, said he did his share to assist those in need after the storm, working as a disaster relief employee for a company that received FEMA funding. Brown helped distribute food and clothing to those most affected by Sandy and helped direct them to temporary shelters, he said.
Should things work out with the voucher, Brown said he will feel sufficiently confident about his housing situation to make a major life decision – follow through on his engagement to his fiance, Monique Guien, and get married.
“We’re hopeful everything will work out,” Brown said.
Kevin Pentón: 732-643-4009; email@example.com
To apply for the Sandy Tenant-Based Rental Assistance Program, visit the state Department of Community Affairs’ website at www.renewjerseystronger.org/renters/sandy-tenant-based-rental-assistance-program/.