Family homelessness has become a critical issue in New Jersey. It is estimated that more than 13,000 children in New Jersey experience homelessness every year, according to state department of education assessment.

Claas Ehlers, CEO of Family Promise, a national nonprofit addressing family homelessness, says some of these kids are sleeping in cars, in shelters and in motels. He said family homelessness has many dynamics to it.

Family Promise began in 1986 in New Jersey as a local response because at that time there was a crisis in the family homelessness situation, according to Ehlers. There were few resources then but now there are 18 affiliates in New Jersey. The organization has gone national and has been honored by Gov. Phil Murphy and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., for celebrating its 33rd year of serving families.

Ehlers said each affiliate provides shelter services for families. All affiliates shelter families through their communities and through their local resources. But they are also doing work to prevent homelessness in the first place by diverting families from shelters, helping them stay in housing they are risk at losing or helping them identify housing solutions so they never have to go into shelter.

"Our affiliates do a lot of work to stabilize families long term after they've experienced homelessness or have been at risk of homelessness so they are not at danger of falling back into homelessness," said Ehlers.

He said there are plenty of resources but the need overwhelms the ability to provide such services. It's exasperated by the cost of housing in New Jersey, which makes it difficult for a family making less than $30,000 a year to not have to spend more than 50% of their income on rent. Ehlers said once a family spends that, other aspects are affected. Transportation, child care, change in job hours, for example, could tip a family over and send them into homelessness.

In New Jersey, the Department of Education mandates that a child who is experiencing homelessness has the right to go to school. But Ehlers said think about how difficult that is for a child who is not sleeping in the same place every night, who doesn't have access to a computer to do homework, who is not getting  good night's sleep or who doesn't have a place in the morning to wash up.

Only 58% of children experiencing homelessness in New Jersey will wind up graduating, said Ehlers. He added that they are eight times more likely to repeat a grade.

Family Promise's network of organizations will collectively try to raise $1 million toward changing the future of one million children by 2030.


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