TOMS RIVER, NJ — It's Tuesday afternoon, and volunteers are inside the building at Riverwood Park, cleaning and preparing to welcome people who have nowhere to go into a warm, dry space for the night.
Overseeing the work is Paul Hulse, the chief executive officer of Just Believe Inc., the Toms River nonprofit that leads the township's Code Blue program.
The work of Just Believe isn't simply about providing emergency shelter for the homeless, however; it's about helping people rebuild their lives.
"We are working for one common goal: getting people back to society," Hulse said.
At the Riverwood Park center, "We try to make it as comfortable as possible," Hulse said. There's cots to sleep on with blankets and pillows, and warm meals provided through collaborations with other groups. There's a pingpong table, and a television, and trained staff whose aim is to find out what each person needs to get back on their feet and get off the street.
By making people comfortable, it allows them to let down their guard and talk about what they need, Hulse said. Just Believe Inc. then works to connect them with the services they need, whether it’s a sober living home for those who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, an assisted living set-up for someone who is elderly, "or even sometimes just a security deposit," Hulse said.
"Some open up after a few days of being in the center. Some open up right away," he said. "It’s the model of what a warming center should be. They feel this place is a place of hope and refuge."
It is the only emergency shelter in Ocean County, which is the only county in the state without any transitional housing for its homeless population. The county had more than 200 people who were homeless during the 2019 Point In Time survey, a yearly statewide effort to count and account for the homeless population in New Jersey.
One of the volunteers at the Riverwood Park center, said Just Believe Inc. has been instrumental in helping him get his life back on track.
"Two years ago I was homeless, living on the streets," said Miguel, who asked that his last name not be used. He had moved to Ocean County from North Jersey with his family several years ago, but became addicted to drugs and wound up homeless.
"One night I found my way to Code Blue," he said. "I've been able to turn my life around." He has a job now and is actively participating in a 12-step recovery program. It hasn't been a perfect ride, he said, but that's where Just Believe Inc. has come in. Not only do they help someone find ongoing shelter, but they check in and continue to provide emotional support to people who are climbing out of homelessness.
"I had a relapse," Miguel said, "but with the help of Paul and of Hope Sheds Light, I was able to get myself cleaned up. It's the network of people who've been my biggest support. That and my faith."
Hulse said Hope Sheds Light, a Toms River-based nonprofit that focuses on addiction recovery support, is just one of several organizations Just Believe works with to help the homeless. Just Believe also cooperates with Toms River and with Ocean County officials.
It's only scratching the surface of what Hulse hopes to do, however.
Hulse has been working with the homeless and disenfranchised in since 2011, first in Florida, and later in New Jersey, establishing Haven/Beat The Streets. In 2017, Haven/Beat the Streets worked with the Toms River Community Church to establish the Code Blue program in the township. When chief executive officer Bill Southrey retired from Haven Beat the Streets in 2019, the new CEO went in a different direction, Hulse said. So Hulse did too, starting Just Believe Inc. in August 2019. It is a 501(c)(3) approved nonprofit.
The five-year plan is for Just Believe Inc. to build a transitional housing center that offers shelter 12 months of the year, not solely on nights where the temperatures are expected to fall below 35 degrees, the temperature Toms River established as triggering a Code Blue alert.
To do that, Just Believe will need land and a building, and the financial support to get there. Hulse and the rest of the board — Chairwoman Kim Popek, secretary Wendy Lynn, treasurer Patty J. Barnes, and members Mary Jacobus and Patricia Donaghue — are working on that. One of the keys to the five-year plan is the Just Believe Boutique that opened earlier this year in the shopping plaza that shares a parking lot with Aldi on Route 37, helped to fruition by a grant from the federal Small Business Administration.
"The thrift store helps create sustainability," Hulse said. The thrift shop is a place where items are affordable for those in financial distress, and creates opportunities for some of the homeless they are helping to work and volunteer.
Among them is Teresa Walsh, who came through the Code Blue program and now is an employee at the thrift store, Hulse said. She's also a talented artist, he said.
When she was homeless, she had to give up her artwork, but now "she's back painting; it's phenomenal what she can do."
"When people are shopping (at the community), they aren’t just helping themselves, they are helping the community," Hulse said. The thrift store also has given Just Believe more respectability with local government officials, demonstrating its commitment to the community for the long term.
"When we didn’t have the thrift store, people didn’t take us seriously," Hulse said. Since then, the support has grown among local officials. U.S. Rep. Andy Kim visited both the Code Blue center at Riverwood Park and the thrift store, and pledged his help in finding land for a transitional housing center. Freeholders Gary Quinn and Virginia Haines have been supportive, as have Toms River officials.
Hulse said the group also has a good relationship with Toms River Police Chief Mitch Little and the police department, as well as the Ocean County Sheriff's Department and with Tracy Maksel, the executive director of the Ocean County Department of Human Services.
"When you have all these people who believe as hard as you do, it becomes a 'we' movement," he said.
That support is crucial right now, because Just Believe, like every organization, is facing fundraising challenges as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, which hit just as Code Blue was shutting down for the season in March.
"We went from Code Blue to food distribution," he said. Just Believe held its own food distributions on Fridays for several weeks through the spring and summer. Code Blue resumed Nov. 1, and has been in effect twice. In addition, they open up on all the holidays so the homeless have a place to go. That includes Thanksgiving, he said. "It’s important."
"We are faced with some challenges," Hulse said. Some of the volunteers have stepped back because of concerns about the coronavirus, and several fundraisers they normally would hold to fund the costs of Code Blue had to be canceled, including the Toms River Elks Christmas tree fundraiser, which provided a huge boost in 2019.
"We held a dance-off, we held breakfasts at Applebee's," he said. All of those have been canceled this year.
They have gotten a gaming license that will allow them to hold raffles, and Hulse said they thinking of other creative opportunities.
And the need for the support Just Believe provides at Riverwood Park is more acute, after two shelters in Lakewood, including its community center, have been shut down. That means even fewer people can be housed in the emergency shelters. Two Toms River churches — Alive Again Alliance Church and First Assembly of God — have offered their support of the Code Blue program, Hulse said.
Lakewood's approach is to just rent motel rooms, which Hulse said doesn't actively address the root causes of their homelessness, and is expensive.
"The Lakewood Community Center averages 30 to 35 people a night," Hulse said.
Just Believe receives financial support from Ocean County when the temperature falls below 32 degrees, but it's only a portion of the costs.
"We do what we can afford to do," he said. "We’ll push through."
Donations are welcome and make a difference — and Hulse makes sure the community can see it, through regular updates on Just Believe's website and Facebook page, and by publishing the financials on the website.
"We want people to see the value of what they are doing, by what we're doing with our funding," Hulse said.
And that starts with the Code Blue program, where people come not only for shelter from the cold, but for the warmth of human caring, where they can see from volunteers like Miguel and employees like Teresa that there is a path to a life no longer spent on the streets.
"When people are coming in here for hope, these guys are talking to them, telling them 'I’m living proof, I've got a job,' " Hulse said. "It's real life. It's real stories."
If you want to support Just Believe's efforts, they accept donations through PayPal on the Just Believe website. Those who prefer can mail checks to Just Believe Inc, P.O. Box 5441, Toms River, NJ 08754, and Hulse said donors who send checks will receive a letter acknowledging their donation. They also accept clothing and gift cards, as well as the gift of volunteer time.
"People should know that they are changing lives," Hulse said. "You are making a difference with us."
This story is part of Patch's Headlining Hope series, which profiles local nonprofits and charitable organizations in need of volunteers and resources. If you know of a local organization that should be profiled, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
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