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Despite ceremony, Camden County won't set up homeless fund

In his waning days in office, Gov. Jon S. Corzine went to a Camden soup kitchen to sign a law that homeless advocates had been dreaming about for years.

In his waning days in office, Gov. Jon S. Corzine went to a Camden soup kitchen to sign a law that homeless advocates had been dreaming about for years.

The city's future mayor, Dana L. Redd, who as a state senator cosponsored the bill, stood beside Corzine as he authorized counties to create Homelessness Trust Funds, supported by $3 fees on documents filed with county clerks.

The trust funds provide money for housing and other programs for the homeless at each county's discretion. They have already been established in seven counties.

But despite Redd's sponsorship and the signing venue, Camden County freeholders say they will not set up such a fund, calling it a tax. Freeholders in Burlington and Gloucester Counties won't establish the funds, either.

Camden City has an estimated 3,700 homeless adults and children, and it has drawn international attention for the tent city that cropped up on a highway exit ramp downtown. Seeing a lack of government resources for housing, a South Jersey pastor stepped up earlier this month and moved the people living in the encampment to a Cherry Hill hotel until they can find permanent housing, which private donations will help finance.

Asked last week why the freeholders aren't pursuing the trust fund, Camden County Freeholder Carmen Rodriguez, the county's liaison on homelessness issues, said she had to consult county spokeswoman Joyce Gabriel, who later issued a statement on Rodriguez's behalf.

The freeholders are "keenly aware of the difficult issue of homelessness," the statement said, which is why they distribute hundreds of thousands of dollars of federal, state, and county money for a variety of homelessness programs and services.

"We believe that this is more than enough," the statement said. "Adding another fee or tax to already overburdened taxpayers, which is how the homeless trust fund would be funded, is not appropriate. Therefore, the freeholder board is not supporting this particular program at this time."

Gabriel did not make freeholders available for interviews, and Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli did not return a call seeking comment.

Advocates for the homeless reject the idea that a $3 charge to file one document - such as a deed, mortgage papers, or veteran discharge papers - is a "tax." They note that the fee often would be added to the thousands of dollars in closing costs to purchase a home.

"It's improving the quality of life for people who are homeless; it's improving the communities because you don't have people living on the streets," said Alison Recca-Ryan, president the New Jersey Advocacy Network to End Homelessness.

She added that, because counties can use the trust fund to supplement other public money for housing projects, the fee helps create jobs in the building trades.

From her home in Pennsauken, said Gina Williams Deas, chief operating officer of Volunteers of America Delaware Valley, she can see four houses that have been vacant and for sale for 18 months.

"So you're telling me that as a Camden County resident, I would squawk at a nominal fee when someone can be in those houses?" she asked.

"I don't want to see people laying in front of the transportation center [in Camden] when I'm taking my bus to go to work. If someone asked me, I'd rather pay that $3."

Redd, who left her Senate seat for the Mayor's Office in January, said the law was important, but she hasn't yet lobbied the freeholders to implement the fee. She said she understood their concerns and thought it could be enacted in the future.

"It may not be the best time with the downturn in the economy," she said.

At the bill-signing ceremony in September, however, she had a different take, according to her statement on the Advocacy Network's website: "At a time when the economy is struggling, many hardworking state residents are slipping through the cracks, unable to keep their heads above water. By authorizing counties to create a trust fund to assist the homeless, we are throwing those people a life preserver in their time of greatest need."

According to the law, the money in the trust funds can be used to help the homeless and those at risk of becoming homeless acquire, build, and rehabilitate housing or for rental-assistance vouchers. A trust fund task force also must be set up to monitor the spending.

To establish the funds, counties must have a 10-year plan to end homelessness, which Camden and Gloucester Counties have. Burlington County does not.

Ralph Shrom, Burlington County spokesman, said the freeholders would not approve the fund because "the majority of our board would regard it as a tax."

In Gloucester County, spokeswoman Debra Sellitto said freeholders did not want to add fees during a recession.

Homelessness is increasing in New Jersey, advocates say, and affecting demographics. But estimates vary greatly.

Over one year, 1,930 adults and children were estimated to be homeless in Burlington County, according to the Advocacy Network. In Camden, the figure was 1,908 adults and children; in Gloucester County, 509.

Yet the Camden homeless-outreach group Project HOPE estimates that there are 3,700 people in just Camden City living on the streets, in shelters, at transitional housing facilities, or with family and friends.

"It's everybody's responsibility," Recca-Ryan said. "There's no one who shouldn't be involved."