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Project Connect Exposes County's Unseen Poverty

The annual event provided clothing, food, and health screenings while assessing the county's homeless population.

In many ways, the things identified as life’s luxuries are based on little more than a matter of perspective. For some of Monmouth County’s residents, warm clothing, a hot meal, and even the most minor of attention from a trained health professional are luxuries they’re forced to do without.

Each year Project Homeless Connect attempts to collect the most accurate data it can with the goal of determining the county’s homeless population. Held on the same day in communities throughout the county, the program also serves the dual purpose of connecting residents with human services provided by both the county and various area non-profit organizations.

Shanna Goldstein, executive director of Family Promise of Monmouth County, said it’s difficult to understand the extent of poverty in a region where economic superlatives often cast a wide shadow, even in towns like Red Bank where poverty is recognized, at least in some capacity.

“Monmouth County is one of the wealthiest counties in the state but you don’t realize the population in need,” she said. “It’s not only the homeless. In many Hispanic households, families are doubled, tripled up. You don’t see this because they’re not out on the streets.”

According to a 2011 report from the Corporation of Supportive Housing, the most recent data on the subject, there are more than 600 people living in Monmouth County who are considered homeless. That number is in addition to the thousands who’s housing is defined as temporary and the countless others who, despite the best efforts of Project Connect, still have yet to be identified.

At in Red Bank, one of four Project Homeless Connect sites, along with Jersey Shore Rescue Mission in Asbury Park, in Freehold, and St. Mark’s Soup Kitchen in Keansburg, residents were asked to fill out a questionnaire with simple questions, questions with answers obvious enough for those with the luxury of having a permanent home, like “Where will you spend the night?”

Though Project Connect seeks to identify all of the county’s homeless, which in turn will help the county receive more federal funding, it’s geared towards the region’s growing Hispanic population. The questionnaire residents are asked to fill out has two answers under the ethnicity question: Hispanic or Latino or Not Hispanic or Latino. Towns like Freehold, Asbury Park, and Red Bank have large and growing Hispanic populations that are hard to accurately track, Goldstein said, as many of them are immigrants, here legally or otherwise, and are wary of a government touting motives of an altruistic nature.

“Some don’t see the benefit,” she said. “We’re really here just to help.”

In exchange for filling out the anonymous form, Red Bank residents were treated to their pick of a new winter coat, a hot meal courtesy Soul Kitchen, a free health screening and flu vaccine, and access to various county services, including employment and job training services. Though , Goldstein said Pilgrim Baptist attracted nearly 200 people before the end of the day, Wednesday.

Goldstein said her organization canvassed the community with the help of volunteers from Pilgrim Baptist, which has a Spanish-language service, a bonus that she credits for helping attract residents. Volunteers even hit the streets in the early morning hours seeking laborers who might otherwise not take part in the survey.

An attractive aspect of Project Connect in Red Bank was the health screening, administered by nursing students and overseen by the of Central Jersey. Residents filed in to have the blood pressure checked and to have flu vaccines administered. For some residents, this will be the only medical treatment they receive all year.

“We are able to give them the resources to help them connect and find services that will benefit them,” the VNA’s Darlene Cadigan said. “This is the initial point of contact for many people, some of whim needed immediate assistance.”

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