Ocean County homeless shelters tracked by non-profit organization Just Believe


TOMS RIVER – Paul Hulse believes someone in Ocean County will work to establish a transitional housing center to support the homeless.

Will it be the county? Or will it be a generous donor who owns property and, as Hulse puts it, “has a heart for helping the homeless.”

Hulse is President and Chief Executive Officer of Just Believe Inc., the nonprofit organization that operates Toms River’s Code Blue Warmth Center for the homeless at a community recreation building in Riverwood Park.

Carlos Bryant and Melissa Wikander share a hot meal at the Just Believe Inc. Warming Center at the Toms River Recreation Building in Riverwood Park on Monday evening, November 23, 2020.  Since the Lakewood Warming Center closed they have been receiving many requests to warm people and yet their maximum has been lowered due to COVID social distancing rules allowing them to accommodate fewer people.

Last year, Hulse and advocates for the homeless, including former Toms River councilman Terrance Turnbach, met with Ocean County commissioners Gary Quinn and Ginny Haines to finally set up a transitional housing center in the county.

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They discussed one possible plan: Ocean County could donate a small piece of vacant land on which a transitional housing center could be built. Quinn said at the time that the county had no interest in building or operating a transitional accommodation center and would not endorse the construction of such a facility unless supported by city officials.

Raising funds to build a center and running it would fall to nonprofit organizations with the experience and ability to work with people affected by homelessness, like Just Believe. But there has been no recent progress on the transitional housing plan.

Preparing food for the homeless last month at Toms River Code Blue Warming Center in Riverwood Park.

Ocean County Commissioner Barbara “Bobbi Jo” Crea, who took office Jan. 5, said Monday that she has only recently taken over as head of the county’s human services department and is still learning about the various issues in the area related to her department, including any discussion of transitional housing.

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Hulse said he has not had an opportunity to contact county officials for many months.

“I haven’t really spoken to anyone about country since I was knee-deep in Code Blue,” Hulse said.

Ocean is the only one of the state’s 21 counties that does not have a transitional residential center. Hulse said such a center could be “tailored to the community” and allow guests to stay for a specific period of time, perhaps 30 or 60 days.

During this time they could be connected to social services and counseling services and would offer help with everything from job applications to finances to drug and alcohol advice and hopefully finding permanent housing. Guests would not be living at the property permanently, Hulse noted.

The need for transitional housing seems obvious to Hulse, whose organization has run Toms River’s Code Blue program for five years. The Riverwood Park Shelter is open when the temperature drops to 35 degrees; Nationwide, Code Blue activates when the temperature is 32 degrees or lower.

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During a recent cold weather spell that lasted through most of January through early February, the Riverwood Park facility was open 31 straight nights, Hulse said. Doors open at 5:30pm and guests must leave by 8:30am the next morning.

“The weather was awful,” he said.

Signs for Toms River Warming Center.

Hulse said the Riverwood Center visited an average of 23 to 25 people a night; the largest number in one night was 29 people. On the coldest nights, volunteers searched forested areas where homeless people often camped out and tried to get more people into shelters on cold nights, he said.

Social distancing requirements will be enforced at the facility.

To date, 104 different individuals have stayed at least one night at the Riverwood Park facility; 95% of them were from Ocean County, Hulse said. Heat centers also exist at Alive Again Alliance Church in Toms River (men only) and True Vine Ministry on Route 9 in the Bayville section of Berkeley.

Paul Hulse and an ET face mask.  Volunteers from the Shore Hands thrift store and grocery store load groceries into the cars of those in need while hosting a weekly grocery giveaway.  Paul Hulse, the founder and CEO of Just Believe, works with the group.

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At the Riverwood Park Animal Shelter, they are given meals and a warm bed to sleep in; Showers are available through a partnership with the Ocean County YMCA on Whitty Road and Journeys Ambulatory Services on the Ocean County Mall.

Just Believe also connects homeless people with social workers who can help them find temporary housing, as well as counseling, assistance entering drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs, and help finding jobs or cleaning up finances. It’s these types of services, advocates say, that help homeless people make the transition back to permanent housing.

Hulse praised the many volunteers who have worked at the shelter, as well as the strong partnerships with county social services, the sheriff’s department and local police.

A transitional shelter, he said, would be more efficient, with a full kitchen, washers and dryers, on-site showers, and the necessary resources to easily accommodate the homeless. Hulse noted that Code Blue ends on April 1st.

“We’re only open for a few more months,” he said. Homeless people seeking help after the warm centers close are often housed in motels, and Hulse said, “You feed those motels money that you could use to help those people.” Others are returning to the forest.

Advocates have long pushed for Ocean County housing that would help homeless people make the transition to permanent housing. The county arranges temporary shelters for homeless residents through social services, but Ocean County officials have expressed no interest in actually operating a shelter.

Last winter, Just Believe served 171 people at the Code Blue center in the Riverwood Park building. A total of 1,809 beds were occupied throughout the season and the Code Blue Shelter was open for 104 nights.

Amanda Mehrman of Just Believe Inc. guides through the sleeping area set up at the recreation building at Riverwood Park in Toms River on Monday evening, November 23, 2020.  Since the Lakewood Warming Center closed they have been receiving many requests to warm people and yet their maximum has been lowered due to COVID social distancing rules allowing them to accommodate fewer people.

On nine days, the shelter stayed open 24 hours a day in extreme weather.

See the Code Blue Shelter in action in the video above.

During the annual statewide “point-in-time” census of the homeless, conducted on January 26, 2021, 239 households — totaling 366 people — were homeless in Ocean County. 122 people were homeless in Toms River, 78 in Seaside Heights and 43 in Brick.

The census was compiled by Monarch Housing Associates, an advocacy group focused on homeless planning and advocacy for affordable housing in New Jersey.

Nationwide, 6,210 households, including 8,097 people, were homeless, including 835 without shelter as of the night of the census.

The point-in-time census represents an attempt by communities across the state to collect a complete count of people affected by homelessness in both shelters and on the streets during a single night. The census is compiled by Monarch Housing Associates, an advocacy group focused on homeless planning and advocacy for affordable housing in New Jersey.

Terrance Turnbach, former Toms River councilman.

On April 2, former Turnbach councilman is planning a week-long “peaceful demonstration” in downtown Toms River to raise awareness of the need for temporary housing.

Turnbach said he picked the date because it marks the date “when we release the homeless back onto the streets to survive until Code Blue begins in November.” He said he hopes to bring together a group of faith leaders and reputable nonprofit groups in the community to support the hike.

“My hope is to have a significant presence to get the commissioners’ attention,” Turnbach said. “I am confident that with the addition of Commissioner Crea, our discussions will move forward. I trust Commissioner Quinn’s desire to help and Commissioner Haines’ desire to help.”

Hulse said he remains optimistic that a temporary shelter will be built in Ocean County in the not too distant future.

“It’s not out of reach. It’s just about finding the right opportunity,” he said. “You cannot rely on the government for every answer. You have to take every opportunity you have and hope it works.”

Covering Toms River and several other Ocean County towns, Jean Mikle has been a writer on local government and politics on the Jersey Shore for nearly 37 years. She is also passionate about Shore’s famous music scene. Contact her: @jeanmikle, [email protected]


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