Montclair, NJ – Fourth Ward Councilor David Cummings has been deeply aware of issues affecting the unhoused. His childhood friend, Curtis Dandridge III, died in Glen Ridge’s George Washington Park in 2014.
In 2022, Cummings finally got the chance to take serious steps toward addressing this issue. He made a call to action to local organizations in Montclair. Cummings stressed the moral importance of helping the unhoused.
“When you have an opportunity to positively impact people who you have shared life experiences with, that’s what you do,” Cummings said.
Some 29 local groups responded, saying they had resources to offer unhoused people in Montclair. These groups span a wide range of services from Montclair Emergency Services for the Homeless (MESH) and Toni’s Kitchen all the way to the Montclair Police Department.
Cummings was pleased by how the town came together to address this problem.
“It was 29 different organizations focusing on one area,” Cummings said. “I think the turnout was tremendous.”
The Montclair Town Council, along with these organizations — Montclair Fund for Women, Montclair Board of Education, Partners for Health, Toni’s Kitchen, Montclair Center BID, Family Promise of Essex County and Schumann Fund — pitched in to come up with $30,000 to hire Monarch Housing Associates to conduct a one-year study and create a formal plan for how to effectively work to end homelessness in Montclair.
After a year talking to Montclair’s unhoused population and identifying best practices, Taiisa Kelly of Monarch Housing Associates presented her plan Monday morning at the Salvation Army. Cummings, as well as Montclair Councilor-at-Large Bob Russo and Essex County Commissioner Brendan Gill, were in attendance.
Kelly led her presentation with statistics. Right now, there are 39 unhoused people in Montclair. This number is determined by the number of people who regularly come to Montclair for survival resources.
“For the specific number of people that we identified, we use the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS),” Kelly said. “It’s a database that’s used by community service providers. They enter information about people who are experiencing homelessness that they serve in the community.”
In terms of demographics, Kelly found that 54 percent of unhoused people in Montclair are over the age of 50. Eighty percent of the unhoused either have a mental or physical disability. Some 49 percent of the unhoused indicated they have no source of income.
On average, someone experiencing homelessness has been without a shelter for four years. The longest someone has gone without a shelter in Montclair is 13 years.
Kelly acknowledged there are challenges to get people who lived without shelter to trust the housing system again.
“I’ll be honest, for people that have been without shelter for 13 years, they may have been so jaded by the system, they don’t necessarily have a desire to go to a shelter,” Kelly said. “But for those who do have a desire to go into shelter, we want to make sure that it’s accessible.”
Kelly discussed what Monarch has learned about the daily lives of the unhoused people in Montclair. Notably, they do not have a single place where they can get their resources.
Places where unhoused people sleep are far away from where they eat. Unhoused people might expend all the calories they’ve eaten walking back from their meal. Additionally, the lack of water fountains in Montclair becomes a serious issue for unhoused people in the summer.
“When we talked, water was really present in everybody’s mind,” Kelly said. “Access to water is important because there’s going to be a lot of days where we are above 90.”
Kelly also recommended there should be a centralized location for unhoused people to go for their needs.
“It’s difficult for people to walk across town from one place to the next to get services,” Kelly said. “Sometimes that might mean they can get access to one service per day because they can’t physically get back and forth within hours of operation. In order to support them, we are looking at locations where people can access multiple services in one location at one time.”
In a public comment, Dr. Renee Baskerville suggested that 11 Pine Street could be used as a possible location for these kinds of services. Cummings was open to that as a possibility.
Then, Kelly talked about how Montclair could provide unhoused people with a permanent shelter.
For some unhoused people, the town might be able to provide them with a rent-controlled apartment and some rental assistance. Montclair is gathering a list of landlords who would be willing to help the town address this issue.
Kelly wants to eventually hold an event called a Housing Surge where landlords could meet with people experiencing homelessness. She thinks a productive event could find homes for 20 people.
“We want to connect [the unhoused] to rental assistance and identify landlords who will help move them in,” Kelly said. “That’s the first step right. We don’t have specific dates just yet, but, honestly, the Housing Surge idea is something that could be implemented within three to six months. That would cut the population in half, but it wouldn’t reach everybody.”
For those who cannot find a rent-controlled place to live, Montclair will need larger, more long term solutions. The town is considering buying a 13-room building on Union St that could act as a facility for people with more long-term needs.
“They’re asking for a million dollars,” Cummings said. “It’s up to the township whether or not there’s the political will to go purchase it. What we found on that property is that it’s close to public transportation. It’s located in an area where they have nearby access to food at Toni’s Kitchen and access to The Salvation Army.”
The next step is for the town and the 29 organizations to pool their resources together in order to avoid inefficiency.
“What I’m committed to doing now is taking the 29 organizations on the sheet and grouping them into teams that can work together,” Cummings said. That’s the next step. I feel like [Mountainside Medical Center] might be able to work with the YMCA to tackle healthcare. And then, Toni’s Kitchen and MESH can collaborate because they both feed our homeless population.”
Cummings also suggested that Montclair could do more to get Essex County involved in this mission.
“The county is helpful because they have a lot of resources that are available,” Cummings said. “We have to do a better job of coordinating and making sure those resources are used properly. For instance, for Code Blue, there’s $40,000 allocated, but that $40,000 was restricted to things like cleaning materials, food and being able to rent a place out. What the agency really needs is help with staffing.”
While the current focus is on finding homes for the 39 people currently without shelter, the framework set up by Kelly and Monarch Housing can be applied to future cases.
“It’s a living, breathing document,” Cummings said. “We have a plan that can eradicate the homelessness problem in Montclair. This strategic plan really shows how we can do it.”