When temperatures plummet, Clifton has no place to shelter its homeless residents

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It bothers Clifton's Lauren Murphy that if her dogs, Harley and Bandit, were stuck outside in freezing weather, someone would likely scoop them up and get them someplace warm, but that the same concern is not always extended to the city's homeless residents.

Those men and women, about 12 to 15 in all, have no place to go when the weather triggers a Code Blue alert, the Clifton councilwoman said.

"We are supposedly 'The City that Cares,' but we don't care about those people," Murphy said.

A Code Blue is declared when temperatures drop below freezing and weather conditions pose a danger to the unhoused population. Homeless people on the street are supposed to be offered a safe place to keep warm.

Clifton police Public Information Officer Robert Bracken confirmed that when homeless residents are in need of a warm place, "we refer them to a place in Passaic."

"It is a messed-up plan," Murphy said. "We should take care of our own."

Passaic has a dedicated warming station. "But sometimes Passaic is full up and they are left to fend for themselves on the street," Murphy said.

Bracken added that in spite of the recent spell of arctic temperatures, no one has had to be transported to Passaic. Murphy said it could be because the warming center, Dignity House on Broadway, is too far from where they like to spend their days.

The consequences can be lethal. Homeless people have frozen to death in the city, including two who died several years ago after they went to sleep under a running truck.

It is not that Clifton does nothing for its homeless residents. The city is funding a health substation in the Botany area and has hired social workers to try to help those living on the street to get their lives back on track. And one Clifton woman was placed in a hotel until the cold snap ends, Murphy said.

The substation is under construction on Parker Avenue. Murphy also noted that despite COVID, the city's homeless population has remained more or less stable.

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COVID and homeless people

Anne Germain, housing director at Eva's Village in Paterson, said keeping homeless residents safe has been a challenge during the COVID pandemic.

For one thing, regulations require 6 feet of space between sleeping areas. Anyone who tests positive must be quarantined in a hotel for 10 days.

Germain said officials don't have a handle on whether the homeless population is up or down. "I would think yes," she said, but better data will be available after the Jan. 26 homeless headcount to take place locally conducted by St. Paul's Community Development Program.

Passaic Mayor Hector Lora confirmed that other municipalities will sometimes transport their homeless residents to Passaic. They have come from Clifton, Paterson and even Hoboken, he said.

"How do you look at a homeless person in extreme temperatures and ask them 'Where do you live' and then turn them away?" Lora said. " I set up Dignity House to help anyone and everyone in need. Our resource is not a panacea to this overwhelming problem but it is something and something is better than nothing."

Ultimately he'd like to see all towns have their own version.

Passaic's efforts to provide shelter when a Code Blue is declared have teetered back and forth. For a year, the city's Salvation Army Mission agreed to take people in when the mercury plunged.

That relationship ended, and Passaic used its Dignity House, a building the city recently spent around $1 million renovating. Dignity House offers showers, haircuts, a mailbox and laundry in hopes of allowing unhoused people to regain their footing.

It serves as warming site, with cots set up on the second floor when a Code Blue is called. But it is not an ideal situation. For one thing, area residents don't appreciate it.

If the perception is that Passaic is taking in all of the region's homeless people, other towns will send their homeless individuals to Passaic, Lora explained. That causes problems among his constituents and local politicians.

Murphy said that when Passaic was creating Dignity House, Clifton was invited to participate in its renovation. "We said no," she added.

Lora has another project in the works to service Passaic's homeless population. Last week he inked the lease for a Jefferson Street property, which could serve as an emergency shelter.

Matt Fagan is a local reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: fagan@northjersey.com

Twitter: @fagan_nj

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Clifton NJ: No homeless shelter for cold weather, temperatures

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