When Mark Woodall was released from state prison six years ago, he had no place to go. He feared he was doomed to resort to selling drugs again and land back in jail.
Woodall lived in a halfway house and found refuge at the Cathedral Kitchen in Camden, where he learned culinary skills and eventually landed a job and an apartment. Now a chef at the soup kitchen, he prepares hundreds of meals a day to feed the city's homeless.
"Coming home from prison and not having a place to stay is a very scary thing," said Woodall, 53, who was incarcerated five times and spent 18 years behind bars for selling drugs. "I didn't know what I was going to do."
Woodall shared his story at a news conference Wednesday outside the soup kitchen where Camden County officials launched a six-point plan to target homelessness. The more holistic approach will better coordinate services and make it easier for the homeless to get help, officials said.
"It can be done," Woodall said. "If someone didn't care for me, I would still be out on the streets doing what I was always doing."
Among the new initiatives will be 24-hour access to social workers for the chronically homeless and assistance in getting seasonal employment. The county has also created an Office of Mental Health and Addiction and plans to expand its "housing first" program.
"We have a moral imperative to aid the most vulnerable members of our community and help them stabilize themselves by getting them off the street and into permanent housing," said county Freeholder Carmen Rodriguez. "These resources that we are bringing to bear will enable us to not only provide shelter, but to give individuals the ability to gain dignity through employment, wrap-around services, and, most importantly, stability."
The program will be funded by a $2 million state grant to Volunteers of America, which operates shelters in Camden and is spearheading a reentry program for those recently released from prison, who are likely to end up on the streets. The "safe return" program helps former inmates obtain educational, health, drug counseling, and job services and to find permanent housing.
"It can be done, and we need to do this," Rodriguez said. "The end goal is to get people off the streets. Let's get people housed so our communities can grow."
Last year, there were 540 homeless people in Camden County, according to the survey, which is conducted each January by NJCounts. Rodriguez said hundreds more are "couch surfing," or living in motels, or are in jeopardy of being homeless. Burlington County, with 604, had the third-highest homeless population in the state. In Gloucester County, 128 homeless were counted. Philadelphia's point-in-time homelessness count this year found about 950 people living on the streets.
To kick off its new program, Camden County conducted a resource fair Wednesday at the Cathedral Kitchen, where breakfast was provided to homeless people and others in need. There were also health screenings and information tables to help the homeless gain access to benefits and other services. They could also get haircuts and take showers.
"These are great people," said Tiffany Tredway, 29, of Sicklerville, a recovering addict who said she lived on the streets of Camden until she landed an apartment about a year ago. "I've been through hell and back."
In one corner, the homeless could pick out new or gently worn clothing, socks, and shoes for free, donated by Threads for Success, a newly formed nonprofit that seeks to help people return to the workforce, said its president, Beth Powell.
"It's giving people back their dignity. It's giving someone a second chance," said Powell, 42, of Barrington. "It could be any of us in their situation."
Cesar Valentino, 52, a retired U.S. Navy SEAL who said he became homeless after he left the military in 2014, traded in his shoes for new black Nikes and picked up a pair of jeans. He lives in a shelter but hopes to obtain housing soon.
"I had nothing when I got out," said Valentino, a Philadelphia native who grew up in Cherry Hill. "I take it day by day. It's not easy."
The Cathedral Kitchen, the largest emergency food provider in Camden, is staffed by an army of volunteers who serve more than 100,000 meals annually. In addition to serving dinner on weekdays and lunch on Saturdays, it provides meals to eight halfway houses and shelters in Camden, executive director Karen Talarico said.
"We have people who are living under bridges," Talarico said. "The need is really great for some people."
County officials said outreach workers plan to fan out in the streets to offer services to homeless people, rather than wait for them to seek assistance. They also plan to periodically repeat the resource fair to provide one-stop shopping.
Burlington County has a "rapid rehousing program" to help people find permanent homes and move the homeless from motels and hotels. Like Camden, Gloucester County has a centralized assessment system to help those in need navigate available services, a spokeswoman said.
Valentino, who suffers from post-traumatic stress, said veterans need more services to adjust to civilian life. He said he had contemplated suicide because he "thought no one cared."
"Our country needs to start doing more for our veterans than saying, 'Thank you for your service.' A lot of veterans out there are lost," he said.