'There are so many people like me.' Homeless mom's story highlights growing problem

Shortly before Thanksgiving last year, Melissa Guinn was driving southbound through Monmouth County when she had to pull over.

“I couldn’t see anything, I was crying so much,” she said.

Guinn was home-insecure, living in various places with her toddler daughter – in a shelter or on friends’ couches – after fleeing domestic violence.

“I was in the worst situation of my life,” she said.

She placed a call to Lunch Break's Family Promise of Monmouth County, a nonprofit program that helps homeless families find shelter and transition to permanent housing. Program director Lenore Gibson invited Guinn to visit their Oceanport headquarters immediately.

“They were able to get me into a hotel, which was the first stable place I had to live in literally years,” Guinn said. “They gave me so much support and helped me every step of the way to where I am today.”

Now Guinn and her daughter, who turns 3 in December, have an apartment in Ocean County. A nursing student before the bottom dropped out, she’s taking online college courses in health care administration.

“There is a mindset of a lot of people who have never been in my position, who have never been at risk of homelessness – they think somebody who is homeless did it to themselves, or is lazy,” Guinn said. “But there’s people like me, who had to run away from everything I had built to save my life and the life of my child.”

Guinn’s story is the kind Family Promise highlights when they seek funding, whether from government agencies or corporate partners, to meet a need that is skyrocketing. With the end of New Jersey’s pandemic eviction moratorium and interest rates rising, Gibson said applications for help have jumped from 160 in 2020 to 230 in 2021 to 305 so far this year.

In the past, Family Promise housed 16 families over the course of a year. Last year the number was 30. This year it’s 59 so far.

“Now that people are being evicted, it’s only getting worse," Gibson said. “The need is far beyond what we can keep up with.”

Melissa Guinn (left), a local mom who found housing with the help of Family Promise of Monmouth County, with Family Promise director Lenore Gibson.
Melissa Guinn (left), a local mom who found housing with the help of Family Promise of Monmouth County, with Family Promise director Lenore Gibson.

An untenable situation

Family Promise’s traditional model involved housing families at a network of Monmouth County churches. That ceased due to COVID-19, at first due to fear of contagion, and later because many of those churches faced pandemic-related financial constraints. So the charity started putting people up in hotels – a much more expensive proposition.

The situation was becoming untenable until Family Promise moved under the umbrella of Red Bank-based Lunch Break, a larger nonprofit, in early 2022. Gibson said Family Promise typically gets an annual grant of $80,000 from Monmouth County, but in unison with Lunch Break applied for a $378,000 award this year to cover the dramatic increase in the number of people needing emergency shelter in hotels and the associated rising costs.

"We were grateful to receive the county’s maximum of $80,000, which helped to defray expenses," Lunch Break communications coordinator Ellen McCarthy said. "Earlier this year, the county also provided a generous grant to help fund our expansion efforts which will allow us to provide more and improved services for our neighbors in need."

Gibson said Family Promise is spending $33,000 per month on motels, so that $80,000 dries up quickly.

“The challenge we are facing is there’s more demand than supply in this affordable housing crisis,” Lunch Break board member Jessica Stepanski said. “We do definitely need government agencies to step up. We have to engage community leaders and government officials in this conversation. It’s going to take some real innovation.”

To explore the options, Lunch Break formed a “housing solutions” committed over the summer. An early focus: more partnerships. Instead of various shore-area housing-related charities competing for a slices of the same government pie, could they pool services and resources?

“The more we can work together, the better off we could be,” Stepanski said. “Almost all nonprofits are started with the intention of truly helping, but as you grow, the bureaucracy makes it harder for organizations to work together. I think partnership is the real way to move forward. Corporate partnerships, too. There are corporations who are aware of this issue and willing to help."

The path forward

For every success story like Melissa Guinn's, there are multiples of others still pushing the rock up that hill. Like Christal Marquez, a 34-year-old working mother of three whose family has been living in a Tinton Falls motel room since September courtesy of Family Promise.

“Everything we’ve needed, they have gone beyond,” Marquez said. “They have done so much for our family.”

But, she said, “finding affordable housing here is so hard.”

There is no magic-wand solution. The hope is that by keeping the issue in the spotlight, advocates for the homeless can turn the key to more government grants, corporate sponsors and synergy between neighboring nonprofits.

“Put money into where you see actual results, where you have people who are willing to testify about how an organization helped them and turned their life around,” Guinn said.

One year after her sobbing roadside phone call, Guinn has turned a corner thanks to a helping hand, and she wants others to have that same opportunity.

“There are so many people like me,” she said. “You never know who could wind up being in that situation.”

Jerry Carino is community columnist for the Asbury Park Press, focusing on the Jersey Shore’s interesting people, inspiring stories and pressing issues. Contact him at jcarino@gannettnj.com.

This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Homeless in Monmouth County: Mom's story highlights growing problem