Program Gives Hope to People Affected by the Storm
Everybody knows Winnie at The Peoples Pantry.
When the 22-foot-long, colorfully decorated Winnebago pulls up in front of the food pantry in the Silverton Plaza on Hooper Avenue in Toms River, people at the relief center who were impacted by Superstorm Sandy know that additional help has arrived.
Emblazoned with “Sandy Housing Recovery Resource Center Mobile Office,” and lovingly nick-named Winnie, the Winnebago is part of the mobile housing counseling outreach effort operated by the Affordable Housing Alliance (AHA), one of the six non-profit social service agencies providing Sandy-related housing counseling assistance to low- and moderate-income families.
AHA provides housing counseling services to Sandy survivors in Ocean and Monmouth counties. The other agencies providing housing counseling services in the nine counties most impacted by the storm are: Catholic Charities serving Essex, Hudson and Union counties; Greater Bergen Community Action serving Bergen County; O.C.E.A.N. Inc. serving Ocean County; Puerto Rican Action Board serving Middlesex County, and Consumer Credit & Budget Counseling serving Atlantic and Cape May counties.
The six HUD-certified housing counseling agencies are part of the Sandy Recovery Housing Counseling Program, which was launched in December 2014 by the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA) Sandy Recovery Division and continues to provide free housing guidance to renters and homeowners who were impacted by Superstorm Sandy and lived in one of the nine most impacted counties at the time of the storm.
As part of the housing counseling process, counselors develop a customized counseling program specific to the needs of the household based on information provided by the Sandy-impacted household. The counseling plan can include individual or group counseling services in such areas as foreclosure prevention, homelessness prevention, mortgages, budgeting, rental guidance, and pre/post-home purchase counseling.
Operating out of its headquarters in Eatontown, AHA dispatches Winnie to a variety of locations and outreach events, accepting walk-in traffic as well as pre-arranged appointments.
Cheryl Person, who is in charge of outreach for AHA and schedules Winnie’s numerous appearances around Monmouth and Ocean counties, explained that it makes nearly weekly stops at The Peoples Pantry, which was launched after Superstorm Sandy to assist devastated shore communities and is now one of the largest and most comprehensive relief centers in the state.
“The people we help are those who feel that everyone else gets a break but them,” Ms. Person said. “They are disheartened by the process to get help.” She said that Superstorm Sandy only made a bad situation worse for many people who were already on the fringes. “Just imagine waking up and your whole world is turned upside down. We get people to focus on recovery and not get stuck in the circumstances of the disaster. We get them to move forward.”
AHA and the other HUD-certified housing counseling agencies have a long history that predates Sandy of providing financial and budget counseling, as well as credit foreclosure avoidance counseling in the communities they serve.
Emma Papiol-Izquierdo, a Housing Counselor for Hudson County with Catholic Charities of the Newark Archdiocese, recalled how she put together a package of assistance from three programs, including DCA’s Sandy Tenant-Based Rental Assistance Program, to provide uninterrupted rental assistance for a family to avoid eviction.
In another case of an elderly woman who has difficulty getting around because she relies on an oxygen machine, Ms. Papiol-Izquierdo visited the homeowner to provide help.
Russell Graves of Consumer Credit & Budget Counseling said for those in Atlantic and Cape May counties, “We’re the roadmap to housing needs. We know the right places to go to get the right assistance.” For low- to moderate-income families, “We tap into any kind of assistance families need,” he said.
In Middlesex County, Henry Gorman, director of the Housing Coalition of Central Jersey, which is part of the Puerto Rican Action Board (PRAB), said his agency’s long-time housing counseling experience has helped it to better assist people affected by Sandy. PRAB has found that people are very receptive of the Sandy Housing Counseling Program. “We’ll keep plugging away and doing everything we can to help people hang on to their homes,” Gorman said.
Kila Lewis, a Housing Counselor for Greater Bergen Community Action said her agency considers the Sandy Housing Counseling Program a natural extension of the work it was already doing. Through Sandy Housing Counseling, “we have provided services for families in Little Ferry, Ridgefield Park, Moonachie, Hackensack; and they were very responsive to the program,” she said. “Many individuals had not had the opportunity to receive help from FEMA and this program gave those residents hope.”
When DCA Deputy Commissioner David Reiner and Assistant Commissioner Laura Shea observed the Sandy Recovery Housing Counseling Program in action during a visit to the Affordable Housing Alliance headquarters earlier this year, they were impressed with the great services provided and the staff’s commitment to the work.
“We saw first-hand a group of dedicated professionals who share DCA’s passion for getting Sandy-impacted individuals back in their homes,” said Deputy Commissioner Reiner. “It is because of compassionate individuals at the housing counseling agencies that we are able to deliver comprehensive housing counseling to those who truly need it.”
For more stories like this one, please visit Spotlight on Recovery.