- Associated Press - Saturday, December 20, 2014

MAPLE SHADE, N.J. (AP) - The name of the Nomad Motel on Route 38 in Maple Shade reflects the lives of some of its residents: wanderers, with no solid place to call home.

Peter Lopez, 21, is living at the Nomad. He became homeless after graduating from Pemberton Township High School in 2013 because of family issues. At first, he tried to juggle having a job and going to college while homeless, but he soon dropped out. Since February, he has lived a life in hotel rooms, paid for by the Burlington County Board of Social Services.

Lopez told the Burlington County Times (https://bit.ly/1vbkHpS ) that he’s struggling to get the county to agree to help pay for an apartment, even though it would cost less than the motel.

A landlord has offered him a two-bedroom apartment for $900 plus $180 in utilities, and Lopez would pay for one-third of the rent through his Social Security disability benefits, which he receives for mental health issues. A Nomad employee said the hotel costs $55 a night when tax is included, which is $1,650 per month.

Anna Payanzo, director of the Department of Human Services in Burlington County, acknowledged that the system of paying for homeless people to stay in hotel rooms for long periods doesn’t make much sense. That’s why the county is launching a “Rapid Rehousing” pilot program in 2015, with the goal of ending long-term hotel placements and getting more people into permanent housing.

“The rapid rehousing model works to get them to permanent housing as quickly as possible and limits the use of emergency shelter to no more than 90 days at a time,” Payanzo said.

Lopez is tired of living in a hotel. Cooking is banned in the tiny room because it’s a fire hazard. He’s also not allowed to let visitors stay over. When his 4-year-old daughter came for a visit, the management said he had to pay $15 extra out of his own pocket.

The rapid rehousing pilot program is part of the county’s broader plan to end homelessness. Payanzo said the goal is to have homeless people transition to permanent housing within 90 days.

The county also will reallocate emergency assistance funds to case management, so that less money will be spent on hotels and more will be spent on caseworkers who can support clients as they work toward self-sufficiency.

“We’ll be in a position where we’re spending less money on better services down the road,” Payanzo said.

“Right now, there are a significant amount of resources, many of which come from the state, that are used to house folks in hotels and motels,” county spokesman Eric Arpert said. “Too often we see that this model traps people in a cycle of living in motels. What we’d like to do is refocus that money on casework and permanent housing.”

The county is searching for a local case management agency to work with and hopes to launch the pilot in early 2015. Sixty people would participate on a rolling basis, meaning that when someone successfully moves out of the system, another person can take his or her place in the program.

Right now, Lopez feels as if the endless bureaucracy of the welfare system is preventing him from moving on with his life. He spent three days in a row at the Board of Social Services trying to find a placement for his girlfriend, Elissa Smith, 18, and her infant son.

Because they are not married and do not have a mutual child, the board won’t guarantee that Lopez and Smith can be placed together. At the same time, Lopez said the board doesn’t want him moving into the two-bedroom apartment without a roommate who can demonstrate a stable income.

“They make us go through these processes to stay in the system, when in reality, we want out,” he said.

One issue that makes it difficult to give more temporary rental assistance (TRA) to clients is that many landlords do not want to accept people receiving TRA as tenants.

“One of the key challenges is just being qualified for a rental,” Payanzo said. “The board can’t force a tenancy on a private landlord. . That’s one of the strong reasons for having an intermediary, who is an additional balance of support for the people being placed in the community.”

The landlord who offered a rental to Lopez, Richard Gober, said one of the reasons landlords refuse TRA tenants is because they have to deal with bureaucracy as well.

Gober owns 85 rental properties in Burlington County and has 24 tenants who receive temporary rental assistance. He claims that in November, he had to begin eviction proceedings against 16 of those tenants because there was a delay in paying rent. Gober had filed for eviction for eight of those tenants previously, before the county eventually paid for the TRA and his legal fees.

“Sometimes it’s the tenant’s fault. … Most of the time it’s incompetency, or because (caseworkers) are overworked,” he said.

“It’s such a broken, broken system.”

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Information from: Burlington County Times (Willingboro, N.J.), https://www.burlingtoncountytimes.com

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