Effort grows to get mental health services to homeless NJ youths

A woman in a beige shirt sits across from young man in a sweater while holding a pen and notepad.
A proposed bill would require New Jersey’s public behavioral health system to create a training program for employees that would help homeless children and parents to find mental health services. (SDI Productions / Getty Images)

Homeless young people need access to mental health services and advocates are proposing a new training program that would help New Jersey children and parents to find these resources.

This push by New Jersey lawmakers and advocates comes as children and adolescents across the state and the country try to deal with mental health challenges exacerbated by almost three years of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Children who experience homelessness often struggle with self-esteem issues, which puts them at risk for substance use and suicide. Data released earlier this week from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that in 2021, almost 60% of female high school students experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness during the past year and nearly 25% made a suicide plan.

“It’s a proactive approach in assisting and maintaining the health and welfare of our children,” said Sen. Renee Burgess (D-Essex), a primary sponsor of the bill.

The bill requires the Children’s System of Care, the state’s public behavioral health system in the Department of Children and Families, to create a training program for employees of emergency homeless shelters on state services available to young people and families.

Legislation would increase training

If signed into law, the legislation would enhance the training that employees already receive, according to Burgess.

The training would include information on services for young people with emotional and behavioral health challenges, substance use issues, and intellectual and developmental disabilities. Employees would also receive training on how to assist parents and young people in getting access to those services.

Homelessness continues to plague children, families, and individuals. On a single night in 2022, more than 30,000 people in the U.S. under the age of 25 were homeless and unaccompanied, according to the 2022 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Most, or 91%, were between the ages of 18 and 24.

In New Jersey, there were 552 homeless youths in emergency shelters on the night of Jan. 25, 2022, according to a report from the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency and Monarch Housing Associates. Additionally, the same report noted, some 170 youths identified themselves as having a mental health issue, 67 a substance abuse disorder.

And the problem is acutely felt in counties throughout the state.

Monmouth County families in need are increasing

There is an increasing number of families without stable housing in Monmouth County and they are not always getting the services that they need, said Maryann Antenucci, the assistant director and family support coordinator at the Family Based Services Association of New Jersey. The organization is staffed by parents of children with mental and behavioral health issues, substance use challenges, and developmental disabilities. The group also serves as the Monmouth County partner organization to the statewide Children’s System of Care.

This housing instability puts the mental health of children and families on a “rapid decline,” according to Dawn Ellis, a family support partner at the association.

“It affects every domain of their life,” Ellis said. “So now the youth cannot function in school … and then the parent is also struggling to go to work and the whole family is really … in a precarious situation,” she said.

The training and education proposed in the legislation is “vital,” said James White, the executive director of Covenant House New Jersey. Covenant House is a decades-old international nonprofit organization that provides housing and supportive services to youths facing homelessness. Over a third of young people at Covenant House New Jersey have mental health challenges.

“We start to build our relationship and start to connect because often their greatest poverty is their aloneness,” said White. “And we want to show them that people care.”

Bobby Brier is a multimedia mental health reporter at NJ Spotlight News, where this story was first published. He focuses on underserved and rural communities throughout New Jersey via a partnership with Report for America. NJ Spotlight News is a content partner of Chalkbeat Newark.

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