Homelessness in New Jersey is compounded by extreme heat. Advocates are pushing for more cooling centers

New Jersey’s homeless population has risen 17% over the past few years, and there aren't enough resources to properly help unhoused people.

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Gabrielle posing for a photo

Gabrielle has been living in the streets of Trenton for 5 years. (David Matthau/WHYY)

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Gabrielle, who struggles with mental health and addiction problems, has been living on the streets of Trenton for the past five years.

“People look right through you like you’re not real, you’re not worthy of just human decency,” she said.

She said she is in survival mode every day, thinking about where her next meal would come from or how she can keep herself safe. On top of all that, she now has to deal with the extreme heat.

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“You’re just walking in circles, like where do I go next, you know what I mean, and wanting to just lay down, sit down, be comfortable,” she said. “It’s mind-blowing that some people may have $4 billion, and I might have $2.”

So far this year, there have been 14 days when the temperature reached at least 90 degrees in Mercer County.

Shel Winkley, a meteorologist with Climate Central, Inc., a nonprofit organization in Princeton that analyzes climate data, said the extremely high temperatures arrived earlier this summer compared to past years. A study by the organization found that New Jersey is tied in third place with Masschussetts and New Mexico as the fastest-warming states in the country. “When it’s hot at night, if you don’t have air conditioning and you don’t have a chance for your body to recuperate from the day’s heat and get ready for the next day of heat, that’s where the health risks are an issue,” Winkley said.

That makes people who live on the streets particularly vulnerable.

New Jersey’s homeless population has risen 17% over the past few years. According to the latest Point-In-Time Count of the Homeless coordinated by Monarch Housing Associates, there were 10,267 people without a home in 2023.

Connie Mercer, the CEO of the NJ Coalition to End Homelessness, said the official total does not include people who are “couch surfers,” who move from friend to friend on a continual basis, many times with their children. She said not being able to escape the heat is dreadful.

“Dying from heat is a horrible way to die, horrible, awful with your muscles contracting, with your losing your ability to think,” she said.

Mercer said that housing is so expensive in New Jersey that most people are priced out.

“More and more, the homeless we’re seeing are people who always worked, who always paid their bills, who are good citizens, and then rents went up and up and up, and they just can’t make it anymore,” she said.

While the unhoused population is increasing, the resources available to them are still scant, Mercer said.

She said some Jersey towns spend more money on homeless dogs and cats than homeless people.

“There just has not been the kind of commitment to taking care of the homeless in this state that there has been in other states,” said Mercer.

She said she is concerned about the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that could allow municipalities to ticket homeless people for sleeping outside.

The State Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee approved a measure to create a Code Red alert program to shelter at-risk individuals during extreme heat and bad air quality events. The bill is under review by the Budget and Appropriations Committee.

Resources for New Jerseyans facing homelessness

  • The NJ Coalition to End Homelessness
    • Phone: 848-228-3889
    • Email: info@njceh.org
  • State Homeless Hotline: NJ 211 
  • Board of Social Services: Residents may contact their local branch  to access
  • Rescue Mission of Trenton 
    • Phone: 609-695-1436 ext. 176 during business hours, Monday to Friday; for after-hours assistance, call 609-695-1436 ext. 914

Matthew Hersh, director of policy and advocacy for the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, said right now, with the high heat and diminished air quality, “it is actually dangerous for anybody to be outside, let alone somebody who might have respiratory illnesses, who is homeless, who doesn’t have a place to go.”

Hersh’s organization is advocating for more cooling centers to be opened across the state.

A 71-year-old man homeless man who didn’t want to give his name said he is one of the lucky ones, because he is now living in the Rescue Mission of Trenton.

After spending his savings taking care of his elderly mother and a chronically ill son, he was almost completely broke and was ordered to leave the apartment he shared with his mother. He turned to the Rescue Mission two years ago and was given a room and three meals a day. He knows many others, however, who aren’t so fortunate.

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“This is like falling into heaven for me. This is something I’ve never heard of in my life. I didn’t know it existed, but it sure is timely for me,” he said.

The man struggles with nerve damage, diabetes and deteriorating hearing but said he plans to look for work. “I keep praying and swearing that someday my ship will come in and I’ll get back to being me again, at which time a big donation comes,” he said.

Gabrielle admits to sometimes having to do things she is not proud of “to get money for food and things I need.”

“It’s inhumane to have empty houses and homeless people, people that have nowhere to go,” she said. “It doesn’t make any sense; I’ll fix it up. I’ll do whatever I have to do. It’s more productive to give people a fishing pole than a plate of fish.”

She said that living on the streets is disorienting.

“You look up, and three months have passed, and you’re like, I don’t know, it’s strange, and the crazy thing is when you’re out here in this situation, your goals and things are different,” she said. “It’s like one of the freest prisons you’ll ever be in. There are invisible walls holding me in this situation.”

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