Commentary: State must help counties finance safety net for residents struggling with COVID-19

Sharon Yoo, Esq., served as Morris County's Human Services director until July 2020.
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By Sharon J.L. Yoo, Esq.

It’s a people thing, not a numbers thing.

Since COVID-19 hit, governments around the country have scrambled to lessen the financial blow of this pandemic and prepare for the next wave of this fatal virus.

At the start of this crisis, many counties in New Jersey quickly maneuvered to set up COVID-19 testing facilities. Homeless persons were relocated from the streets and shelters to motels for social distancing. Social services agencies had to transform their organizations to meet a new and different need not ordinarily covered by existing grants.

The safety net grew heavier as benefit applications for food assistance, welfare, shelter, and unemployment grew exponentially. In Morris County alone, we saw a triple-fold increase in the number of new applications.

A new population of individuals who have never before utilized public benefits is now finding themselves at a loss as they maneuver through an uncharted system. The unimaginable is happening to the previously employed: They are finding themselves in dire need of that safety net.

Due to federal guidelines from the CARES Act, many counties with populations of less than 500,000 are excluded from needed federal relief. Morris County (with a population of 492,000), along with neighboring Sussex, Hunterdon, Somerset, and others have been excluded from this necessary fiscal relief.

What does this mean to counties without this support? With the eviction moratorium nearing an end, we soon may find thousands of individuals pushed to the streets.

According to a study with the Aspen Institute, it is estimated that New Jersey will have approximately 504,816 renters at risk of eviction by year’s end. We also are seeing mental health needs skyrocket as the effect of COVID-19 is taking its toll on first responders, the unemployed, seniors, and youth.

Accessing the safety net will become even more challenging with government staff furloughs and hiring freezes instituted throughout the state. With cuts to needed funding, vital social services agencies will contemplate closing their doors or drastically reducing services.

As the former Morris County Human Services director, I am proud to say that our county has met the challenge and continues to support critical programs. However, this cannot be sustained without financial support.

As a resident of Morris County, I want to see my friends, neighbors, and children have access to the same needed services that residents in many other New Jersey counties receive.

COVID-19 does not discriminate; it will hit you even if you live in a county with 500,000 people or less. I ask that the Governor allocate dollars to support critical funding for these counties.

Sharon J.L. Yoo was the Morris County Human Services Director through July 10, 2020. She previously served as an attorney for Legal Services of Northwest Jersey, a 501(c)(3) legal services organization, advocating for the rights of seniors, and individuals with physical and psychiatric disabilities.

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