The struggle for housing in Cape May County

Frances Ames, her significant other, and her 4-year-old daughter have been living in a motel room since December.

The 32-year-old lost her identification last fall when her purse was stolen. She and her daughter have been homeless since then. Without documentation, she’s ineligible for state-funded benefits.

There is no emergency homeless shelter in Cape May County. Those who qualify for General Assistance (GA) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the state’s two welfare programs, can qualify for emergency assistance in the form of housing vouchers if they’re complying with welfare’s requirements. The vouchers are available for up to 12 months, once in a lifetime.

Under the voucher program, the Board of Social Services pays $50 a night for a single person staying at a hotel, or $1,200 a month, according to state-regulated guidelines. The number goes up per number of individuals: $60 a night for two people, and so on.

Recipients of the vouchers would often choose to redeem them at motels, one of the region’s only affordable housing options for families.

But motel owners said they’ve noticed fewer people coming to them under the vouchers program. In year’s past, the off-season money has supported the motel where Frances has been living, allowing for improvements and repairs, according to the owners.

“We’re down 50-60 percent,” said the motel owner, who asked to remain anonymous. Two years ago, he says, about half of the motel’s 34 units would have been filled by voucher recipients during the off-season winter months. This year, that number has fallen by half.

In 2014, Cape May County Board of Social Services paid $3 million in housing costs to motels participating in the voucher program, a drop from $4.5 million in 2013.

Connie Myers owns the Blue Heron Motel in Wildwood, a town that’s been at the center of the homelessness conversation in the region. She obtained rooming house status for the motel in 1994, which means she’s permitted to have guests for extended stays. A city ordinance prevents a typical motel from allowing stays of over 20 days.

In the last two years, she said, the city has cracked down on the use of motels as long-term housing. The cut to business has caused a half dozen motels to close this year alone, Myers estimates.

“They’re trying to phase out the motels as shelters,” Myers said. “That’s fine, if you have somewhere else for people to go.”

When they first became homeless, Frances and her daughter stayed at a shelter in Cumberland County, but left after Frances’ daughter became sick and was hospitalized for a week.

On below freezing nights, they stayed in Code Blue shelters, emergency shelters mandated by the county when temperatures fall below 25 degrees or 32 degrees with precipitation. A local sheriff paid for her and her daughter to spend a few nights in the motel and the Salvation Army covered a few more.

For most of the winter months, the motel owners allowed her to stay in the room in exchange for her and her significant other doing odd jobs around the property.

For months, Frances has been trying to get her papers sorted out so that she can begin receiving benefits. She walks from agency to agency each day on a bad foot, pleading for help for herself and her daughter, before walking to the bus stop to go do a few hours of part-time work.

She succeeded in obtaining her birth certificate weeks ago, only to be told when she returned to social services that she needed receipts from her past residences over the last several months.

In this way, her case is similar to that of Timothy McCart, the homeless veteran who made headlines in shore communities in mid-March when he was struck and killed crossing Route 47 in his wheelchair. According to the widely reported story, he too was ineligible for emergency housing assistance because of a lack of documentation.

He had spoken the day before he was killed at a county freeholder meeting about the need for more support for the homeless in Cape May County.

Problems in the county include a lack of year-around employment, a dire shortage of affordable housing options, and a drug epidemic that plagues the county, according to residents and news outlets.

In 2012, Cape May County had the highest number of drug treatment cases per capita in the state. The county doesn’t have its own long-term rehabilitation center.

An affordable housing complex for working families, the first of its kind in the region, is set to open this spring and is currently taking applications. Demand is high for the 112 apartments, but qualifications are strict and include a clean credit score for the last five years.

For many families, those requirements will be prohibitive.

“The motels have a reputation for drugs. That hasn’t been my experience,” a motel owner said. “The vast majority are good people who have no other options. They have nowhere else to go.”

Frances said that she’s looking to apply for one of the apartments. By now, she’s left the motel room her family has called home for the last four months. As of last week, she wasn’t sure where they would go.

Frances’ family received the first four “Set a Plate for Jesus” meals donated to Catholic Charities’ Cape May County Family and Community Services Center by the Parish of St. John Neumann in North Cape May.

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