Central Jersey Legal Services Is Eliminating Homelessness in One New Jersey County Through a Coordinated Assessment Program

With a phone call to 211, a homeless individual or family can get screened, prioritized, and referred to the appropriate shelter and services in Middlesex County, New Jersey. This is important, considering the location.

According to Middlesex County’s “10-Year Plan to End Homelessness”:

“Middlesex County, located at the center of New Jersey, faces unique challenges in addressing the issues of homelessness among individuals and families. With 25 municipalities ranging from urban centers to farmland communities, Middlesex County is home to a diverse population in socio-economic status, racial/ethnic background, and community type.”

Another part of the report, produced in 2012, touches on the county’s chronically homeless population. “In Middlesex County, the chronically homeless comprise about 12% of the homeless population. According to Middlesex County’s 2008 Point-In-Time Survey, the majority of the chronically homeless population in the county is from New Brunswick, the county seat.”

While chronic homelessness has lingered in Middlesex County over time, it has been on the downswing since 2015—when the county’s coordinated assessment program was created—to the point where it has almost been eliminated county-wide. (Since 2015, veterans’ homelessness has been eliminated by the program.)

Starting in the fall of 2014, Central Jersey Legal Services (CJLS) became a member of the Coordinated Assessment Leadership Team of the Middlesex County Continuum of Care Committee. The Continuum of Care (CoC) is a group of government programs and services as well as nonprofits. CJLS played an integral role in the planning and establishment of a coordinated assessment system that would integrate all of the member agencies. CJLS was involved at every step of the process, from establishing a single point of entry system, to creating an assessment tool and memorandums of understanding, to implementing the system county-wide.

The goals of the program are to “minimize the time anyone in the county experiences a crisis and to prioritize available assistance, based on vulnerability and severity of service needs, to ensure that people who need assistance the most can receive it in a timely manner.” This is done by having a single point of entry for homeless individuals—in other words, a triage unit that uses a concise, standard assessment tool and standard protocols and places the individual into service programs. Dialing 211 is the gateway into the “homelessness system” for many people that gets them the help they need.

The program took some time to get up and running, though. Specifically, CJLS and the Continuum of Care had to:

  • Talk the shelters into coming on board with the program
  • Spend six to eight months on planning and implementation
  • Train the 211 operators, since they do the initial screening (they either put the individual in a queue for a bed at a shelter, arrange for them to stay at a motel for the night, or discuss other options such as alternative places to stay)

By 2016, the program was in full-steam-ahead mode due to a streamlined system that benefited from the Continuum of Care’s cross-collaboration and communication, in addition to a set of imposed guidelines; for example, the program can only say “no” to one-quarter of the referrals, so the government agencies and nonprofits really need to work together to provide services to people who have been screened by the program. CJLS maintains involvement with the coordinated assessment program as a member of the steering committee tasked with ensuring and improving its efficacy.

Due to the success of the coordinated assessment program, the Middlesex County Human Services Advisory Council—on which CJLS also serves—is now looking at it as a model for ways in which other human services can be coordinated within the county.