A bill sponsored by New Jersey Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez, D-Middlesex, would allow behavioral health care providers to treat people staying in emergency homeless shelters across the state.

Most people who enter the emergency shelter system have a host of problems, all exacerbated by homelessness, said Mary Gay Abbott-Young, president of The Rescue Mission of Trenton, and spokesperson for The Shelters Providers Consortium.

The Consortium advocates for homeless shelters, and promotes collaborations between shelters, policymakers, and communities.

The trauma of going through homelessness and finding shelter is often accompanied by a lifetime of economic poverty, she said.

“Many of those who come in also report mental health and substance use disorder problems that interfere with their ability to locate housing and to complete the things necessary to maintain housing,” Abbott-Young said.

She said treatment at these shelters cannot be delayed any longer because this is an immediate needs population given the crises that these people are in daily.

They need to know immediately the basics of life – where they are going to sleep, eat, and live.

“In order to provide services, we have to respond to the immediate need. So, I like to say services delayed are services denied to this population,” Abbott-Young said.

So, there is this group of people experiencing homelessness with a high immediate need and there is a system struggling to meet that need across the community. She said they are trying to work with the state to devise a system to get homeless people the services they need.

The immediate service need would be medication, she said. It could be medication for substance use disorder, or to treat anxiety, depression, or some other ailment.

“Second, we want someone who is trained to deal with the trauma the person is experiencing around the homelessness, and third, we want to see a person entered into a system that can begin to assist them long-term with problems with behavioral health issues,” Abbott-Young said.

If this becomes a bill, she said there is a concern as to how these services will be paid for. But she said they are fortunate to be working with behavioral health and shelter providers that take advantage of resources that are available, and try to use some of the existing financial resources, but also establish areas where they need additional resources.

“We know that through a cooperative effort, we can only do so much to get behavioral health services readily available to that population. But we are very pleased to have the state, and the behavioral health network, and the shelter providers working together to try and design that system,” she said.

The bill passed the full Assembly on Thursday, and is awaiting action by the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee.

According to the 2022 Point-In-Time Count, conducted by Monarch Housing Associates on the night of January 25, a total of 8,754 people, including men, women, and children experienced homelessness across the state on a single night.

Jen Ursillo is a reporter and anchor for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach her at jennifer.ursillo@townsquaremedia.com

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