Story by Dorothy K LaMantia | Correspondent
Just four days into 2018, winter storm Grayson dug in its heels and walloped the eastern seaboard with frigid temperatures, fierce winds and snow ranging from 6 to 18 inches throughout New Jersey, forcing schools, offices, stores and churches to close.
Even before Grayson raged, of utmost importance for those in need was keeping warm. Around the Diocese of Trenton, social service agencies reported that one of the biggest demands as the cold set in was for warm clothing, blankets and even housing.
Seniors, often living in older homes with outdated furnaces and plumbing and lacking in insulation, are especially grateful for blankets and warm clothes, said Dominican Sister Loretta Maggio, program director of Mount Carmel Guild’s Emergency Assistance Program.
Roberto Hernandez, director of El Centro, Catholic Charities Diocese of Trenton’s mission to the Latino community, said the center has distributed more than 350 winter coats this season.
“With the growing number of migrants from Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria, this is a big issue for them. They are not used to the cold,” he said. “We’re still collecting coats because the need is there for these new members of the community.”
He said that each week, about a dozen families of the 25-30 who seek help at El Centro are new migrants from Puerto Rico.
Often, diocesan organizations also work with utility companies to keep a client’s electric or heat on. Richard Ferreira, Catholic Charities program director of community services in Burlington and Mercer Counties, said, “While funding is limited, we did our best to help many households who requested utilities assistance.”
Seniors who apply for government oil subsidies often wait until the end of December or longer to receive their supply – well after the onset of freezing temperatures.
“The Guild usually purchases a 50-gallon allotment for these clients to get them through,” Sister Loretta said.
Social service agencies said it is too soon to know whether the recent storm increased requests for help in paying heating or electric bills.
“I won’t know that for at least two weeks, maybe more,” said Sister of Mercy Sister Nancy Herron at the nonprofit Project PAUL, Keansburg, which runs a thrift shop, pantry and furniture store. “It depends on how much time some of our clients missed when they couldn’t work because of the storm and weren’t paid.”
The storm closing also impacted those whose monthly visits to food pantries are crucial.
“We have more emergency calls this week because we were closed,” said John Margicin, manager of the food pantry run by St. Raphael Parish-Holy Angels Parish, Hamilton. “We’ve had more seniors than ever before. I’m [also] surprised at how many younger people with children come.”
With the federal and state governments decreasing their food allotments to pantries, Margicin described the situation as dire.
When St. Francis Community Center, Brant Beach, reopened after the winter blast, the volume of food requests kept the pantry open an hour past 2 p.m. closing Jan. 9.
“Our professional staff had to help the pantry workers fill the orders,” said Amy MacKenzie, director of family support services. She noted that the pantry has seen a significant increase in requests for food assistance in the last year.
One of the most terrifying of life’s possibilities is homelessness – even more so in the face of a blizzard.
“I had a client who is homeless. I’ve helped him several times, so I always check if his living situation has changed. It has not,” said Corine Spincola, a case manager in Catholic Charities’ Community Service Program, Lakewood.
“I asked if he was outside in that bitter cold,” she said. “He had spent that time indoors at the community center ‘Code Blue’ and was very glad to be there, as crowded as it was.”
Mosudi Idowu, Catholic Charities’ Rapid Rehousing director, said the agency has been very busy with requests for housing.
“When weather is severe, people come to us for emergency housing. They may have been staying with relatives who can no longer accommodate them,” he said. “We have to see if they meet requirements of government programs. It takes 15-20 days to process their application.”
Joseph T. Williams, diocesan president of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, reported that the society’s conference at St. Martha Parish, Point Pleasant, received two requests for housing during the storm from individuals facing eviction. Often, those seeking shelter from the agency are not eligible for public assistance and are looking for a stopgap.
“The issue of homelessness is underserved in Ocean and Monmouth Counties,” he said. “The SVDP conferences in Toms River and other parts of Ocean County often receive calls from the homeless who ask to be put up for several nights in a local motel. It’s a dilemma we share because there are no shelters.”
It was imperative for the Catholic Youth Organization of Mercer County, which operates preschool and after-school programs in the Trenton area, to be at the ready once the storm had cleared and business returned to usual Jan. 8.
“We must be open every day for a full day from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. to allow families to work. Parents depend on us, day in, day out,” said Tom Mladenetz, CYO executive director.
“We see these families month to month. We are aware how a storm or something like a heater breaking sets them back, creating an unexpected expense. They need us to open up so they can go to work for their families.”