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Vol. LXV, No. 42
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Most people dont associate Princeton with homelessness. But in this university town of tree-lined streets and upscale shops, the issue is very real. The ongoing economic recession has made the nightmare of losing a home all too familiar to an increasing number of hard-working citizens who never imagined themselves in such a predicament.
It is precisely those people that Housing Initiatives of Princeton, a non-profit organization run by representatives of Princetons five largest religious congregations, aims to assist. HIP will hold its annual benefit, a Rent Party, at the Present Day Club on October 29.
These are folks that keep the town going, says Ruth Thurmond Scott, who chairs the organizations Board of Trustees. They are the retail, restaurant, medical center, and assisted living facility workers. They often have low skills and low wages. They have no safety net. When a crisis hits them, the community needs to step in.
Starting with one property in 2004, HIP has provided transitional housing to low-income working families and individuals who are homeless or facing homelessness. The organization currently offers housing at three locations. Those selected to live in these three-bedroom units can stay for up to 24 months and are asked to assist with rent, based on their income. Typically, they live in the units for about 21 months and contribute 30 percent of the rent.
But three units is not enough. We are very much in need of additional units because we need to assist more clients, Ms. Scott said last week. Though the average stay is 21 months, its getting closer to 24 because of the economy. With this downturn, the need far exceeds our capacity.
HIP looks for clients who have an employment history. The typical recipient is a divorced mother who may have found herself suddenly without a job or health insurance. The dissolution of marriage, medical conditions that make it impossible to pay bills, and of course, unemployment, are all factors, said Ms. Scott. These are folks who do the jobs that the wealthy do not. Its a question of, How do we integrate these people into the community? It starts with housing. Having a safe place to live is the most important thing.
Clients find HIP through word of mouth, clergy, and other social service agencies. If they are lucky enough to be selected, they move into comfortably furnished units equipped with full kitchens and computers. These are warm, welcoming homes. Everyone would be happy living in our units, said Ms. Scott. The idea is to give them a respite, a chance to regroup. Then they can, hopefully, move on and become self-sufficient.
Board members at HIP work with real estate agents and management companies to find landlords willing to lease apartments below the market rate. In an affluent town like Princeton, it isnt easy.
People will say to us, Why dont you get something in Trenton? Or in Lawrence? But we want to stay in Princeton because our clients are from here, said Ms. Scott. We want to keep Princeton socio-economically diverse. Were reaching out to anyone and everyone we feel might have the resources to help us.
Ms. Scott said the program is closely monitored. Were very involved with them. Its not like a landlord who just collects the rent, she said. We do home visits, and we maintain the properties. And its not just about providing a place to live. We help with budgeting, job-search, educational assistance, professional therapy, and dressing for success.
The program was founded in 2001 by Nassau Presbyterian Church and Trinity Episcopal Church, under the auspices of Princeton Outreach Projects Inc. The all-volunteer organization now includes ten board members representing those two congregations as well as Princeton United Methodist Church, The Jewish Center of Princeton, and Princeton Friends Meeting, as well as the community at large.
Since placing its first clients in 2004, HIP has housed six families and six adult women facing homelessness. Four of these families made the transition to affordable apartments and one now owns a home. The organizations first client is now certified as a phlebotomist and attending community college full-time on a federal Pell grant. Another client, whose family had run into trouble with credit, graduated from Princeton High School last year and currently attends Princeton University.
Inspired by the rent parties started in Harlem during the 1920s and 1930s by neighbors helping each other pay the rent, HIP held a fundraiser last year with a rent party theme. The events success has prompted another such gathering this year. On Saturday, October 29, those attending will sample southern soul food, hear jazz by The Alex Collins Trio, hear poetry, and dance. Period attire is optional (visit www.housinginitiativesofprinceton.org).
Some of the conditions people experienced during the 1920s in Harlem low wages and housing exploitation among them are still happening today, said Ms. Scott. This was a cost-effective way for neighbors to help neighbors put a roof over their heads, and weve got the same goal.
The celebration netted about $20,000 last year and had some 80 people in attendance. Ms. Scott and her fellow volunteers hope to top those numbers with the upcoming party.
Right now, we have two families in our units and are about to decide on a third, she said. But we need to have more. There is a deep need in Princeton, and because of the wealth that is here, its very invisible. But its here, and its real.
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