More than 300 staffers across 66 New Jersey organizations providing direct social services in the area of homelessness prevention have received training from the state Department of Human Services to address the unique needs of the Garden State's lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and allied communities.

That is just the start, according to Deputy Human Services Commissioner Elisa Neira, who said the ICARE (Inclusion, Courtesy, Awareness, Respect & Education) training is done in partnership with the Rutgers University School of Social Work Institute for Families, and the Hudson Pride Center.

It is funded by a two-year, $600,000 investment from the state that began in fiscal year 2021.

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"Our goal is to be able to broaden this as much as possible," Neira said. "We already launched the training in the month of June, which is also LGBTQI+ Pride Month."

The training grew out of recommendations made in a 2019 report from the Transgender Equality Task Force commissioned by Gov. Phil Murphy, citing national data that clearly identified the hurdles faced by transgender New Jerseyans in particular.

Neira said they are uncommonly susceptible to family challenges, housing instability, violence by an intimate partner, workplace discrimination, and mental health or substance use disorders.

"All of these things are things that we want to make sure that people in this space are equipped to be able to respond to," Neira said. "A significant percentage of New Jersey respondents expressed avoiding staying in a shelter because they feared being mistreated as a transgender person."

Such a response was a call to action for the state, according to Neira, as it identified a lack of uniform practices among social service organizations and a need to train their staff members with regard to implicit bias, cultural humility, and the basics of gender identity and expression.

Continuing to examine issues critical to the LGBTQI+ community, and what protections are offered to them by state and federal law, will ensure more welcoming and inclusive spaces provided by social service agencies, Neira said.

She said we all deserve respect and dignity, and when it comes to this, "the learning never ends."

"There's always room for improvement in how we can really make sure that the way that we deliver our services continue to improve to really meet the needs of the folks that we're serving," Neira said.

Individuals experiencing homelessness are urged to call NJ211 to be connected to local county resources, or visit njhelps.org.

Patrick Lavery is New Jersey 101.5's afternoon news anchor. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

Beautiful sunflower fields to visit in NJ 2021

Among reasons why the “Garden State” remains a fitting nickname for New Jersey — late summer means the arrival of sunflower season.

There are at least six fields, spanning the state. Some are in bloom as of early August, while others are planned to peak from late August to late September.

Calling or emailing before heading out is always advisable if weather appears to be an issue. 

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