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Continuing to help, undeterred

Montclair’s Victorian homes, art galleries, and international restaurants belie the homelessness  that also exists in this affluent New Jersey township.

“The numbers may not be like New York or Newark, but even in a small town like Montclair, homelessness still exists,” says Michele Kroeze, business manager at the Salvation Army’s Montclair (Citadel) N.J., Corps. “Just as in those bigger cities, these folks are dealing with barriers such as mental illness and substance misuse. They don’t necessarily want to leave Montclair to find help either; this is their home.”

When the COVID–19 lockdowns began last March, it became more difficult to see how the Citadel could best serve its homeless population. The Army’s limited space became critical when such people were prohibited from going inside the building. In the past, the Citadel had welcomed the homeless to take showers, but the pandemic put a stop to it. Their daily lunch program provided a meal and a place to socialize indoors, until everything had to close down.

Some people chose to sleep outside the Citadel and refused help to find indoor housing, even as spring became unseasonably cold. Kroeze remembers a homeless man in his late 60s who frequented the Citadel. Although he was fortunate to have retirement income, he chose to live outside. “Every day, I prayed for him. I asked God to please let him be alive when I arrived at work,” says Kroeze.

The city placed a portable lavatory in the Citadel’s parking lot. This proved to be invaluable because officials had sealed off every park and train station bathroom previously available to the homeless. Eventually, the Citadel was allowed to reopen its showers to a limited number of people. Twice a week, ten individuals were allowed to take an hour­–long shower. For many of them, this was the only hour of the week they spent indoors.


Giving thanks underground

“By Thanksgiving, the COVID numbers got worse. So, we hosted our dinner in the Citadel’s underground garage,” says Kroeze. “One of the guests said it was the first time he had sat on an actual chair since the pandemic began.”

In late January, with snowstorms predicted for the remainder of the season, city officials arranged for various churches to act as feeding and warming stations through the end of March. Following strict protocols, the Montclair Citadel would receive funding to open its doors during the week to the homeless from 9 AM to 1 PM. The corps personnel had already started to use the gym as a socially distanced space for the homeless, but now it would operate with extra funding and direct support from Montclair’s COVID–19 Task Force.

“Since then and even during the year’s terrible snowstorms, we’ve found ways to keep the lights on in the building,” says Kroeze.

“Through window case work, we’ve provided thousands of dollars of homeless preventions funds, and even helped people get into permanent housing in the middle of the pandemic,” says Kroeze. One of those people who received housing was the man for whom she had prayed every day.

“Sometimes, we’re like an outlet for the frustrations of the people we help. We are their family. They can be loud to or complain around this family, and this family will still love them just the same. They’ve all been amazing and grateful to us,” says Kroeze.

“We did whatever little we could do. The pandemic didn’t deter them, and it didn’t deter us either.”

by Hugo Bravo