Shelter from the Storm: Conversations with Cumberland County's Homeless and Code Blue Volunteers

Posted: Last Edited: Mar 06, 2018 02:35 PM

Aaron Carella, 23, of Bridgeton. 

At a homeless shelter on a cold winter night during a Code Blue activation, guests and volunteers talk about the homelessness situation in Cumberland County.

For some in Cumberland County, the world seems hopeless. When some of them, for a variety of possible reasons, become homeless, things can appear even more hopeless.

It could be your co-worker, your relative or your neighbor.

Although the nonprofit M25 Initiative has a mission of wiping out homelessness in the county by 2020 — and it’s doing an outstanding job so far, with a Housing First program that has placed dozens of people into homes since its inception last year, and a robust Code Blue program that provides food and shelter for the homeless when the temperatures are below freezing —  there are factors that, according to some of the county’s homeless residents, need to be considered first.

For instance, what’s a young adult to do when they’ve lost both parents, have no other family, and can’t get a job?

Such circumstances, along with the grip of drug addiction — which has strengthened its clutches on the community fueled by the nation’s opioid crisis — haunt many of the county’s homeless and make things nearly impossible to bear — and move forward.

Cumberland County Native Brian Galetto's Book on Homelessness Out Now 

If someone doesn’t have a sense of hope, it’s hard for them to care, and that’s when drug addiction can take over and complicate matters even further, according to experts in the field of addiction.

While some county residents sleep in the woods year-round, or are in and out of the county jail — some for attempted shoplifting, trying to steal a tent from Walmart to sleep in, for example, — or simply live for their next drug fix, there are others who care enough about these relative strangers to attend to their basic needs and make sure they receive a warm meal and place to sleep for the night when the temperatures dip below freezing.

These volunteers are a special kind of people. They may have been touched by homelessness in some way or not, but they feel good about doing the work either way and seem to be as selfless as they can be.

Volunteers Damitria Williams and Brenda Ruble-Giorno. 

“Giving back is very important,” says Tyrone Mason, a volunteer during a recent Code Blue activation in Bridgeton. “We should have more people to give back and maybe we wouldn’t have homelessness.”

“I just want to give back,” says Damitra Williams, another volunteer. “I feel awesome. It’s a blessing to give back. I feel great about it.”

Cumberland County Code Blue Program to Distribute Coats to Homeless 

On a recent freezing January weeknight, more than a dozen volunteers were caring for about 35 people at the Grace Bethany Church in Bridgeton the hub of the Code Blue coalition in Cumberland County, which includes others churches and warming centers in nearby Vineland and Millville.

Aaron Carella, sitting with his young wife at a cafeteria-style table, was less than a day out of jail and dealing with opiate addiction/withdrawal. He says he and his wife had been homeless for a few months.

“I’m homeless,” says Carella, 23, of Bridgeton. “[But] trying to do the best we can. When we don’t have a Code Blue, we are sleeping in abandoned houses or the woods.”

Carella says he “wishes” Cumberland County would do more for the homeless (“the homeless shelter is way out on Mays Landing Road in the middle of nowhere, [without] transportation,” he says), and has some unique ideas.

Carella wonders why, during the nights when there is not a Code Blue in effect, the county or a nonprofit entity couldn’t help provide spaces for the homeless to sleep in, possibly inside some of the abandoned buildings that are prevalent in the city after a potential renovation effort to house people. He says he would be happy to work on the project in exchange for shelter and help.

Related: NJ Counts its Homeless as Numbers Fluctuate (2018)

“So, if the county could open up one of these abandoned buildings,” he said, “and do more.”

These kinds of ideas have been kicked around in other cities for decades, but it’s complicated nature has impeded any serious momentum. There would have to be a lot done to make such an idea a reality, and many of the buildings wouldn’t be up to code for sure, but Carella is desperate.

And the facts are on his side. According to a 2012 estimate, there were an estimated five vacant buildings per each homeless person in America. Banks have been known to donate abandoned properties, but converting them to new homeless facilities is a difficult process, according to reports. The Department of Health and Human Services has also helped abandoned properties become homeless shelters through nonprofit organizations in other cities around the U.S. Carella thinks that some of the models out there that have worked could benefit Cumberland County tremendously and help the homeless problem.

“It’s rough out here if you don’t have anything,” Carella adds. “I don’t have family to support me and help out. When I do work, it’s little small jobs, odd jobs. It’s rough. I’m young. I’m only 23 and just trying to make it and not do criminal activity to do what I have to do.”

Volunteer Lisa Carter Smith knows Carella because she’s a corrections officer at the county jail. She’s been volunteering with the Code Blue program for two years.

“I had a little time on my hands and I always like to help the less fortunate,” she said. “I like to keep busy. It gives me something to look forward to by helping people less fortunate than I am. I’ve been a corrections officer for 21 years at the Cumberland County Department of Corrections, so I see a lot of these people. I see what happens to them when they are released on the streets. They have nowhere to go and most of the time they end up here. So I try to help however I can.

The relationships she has with some of the homeless give Carter Smith insight into specific ways she can try and help the homeless “guests.”

It’s rough out here if you don’t have anything.

“I try to meet their needs,” she says. “I try to introduce them to people here that can help them get a job, clothing, food so that they can get on their feet and get to the next level.”

After dinner the tables are moved to make room for the shelter’s cots, each draped in a thin red blanket and a set of white sheets. Everybody is wanded before entering the shelter space, which is located off an alley at the side of the church. If guests don’t make it in before the strict 9 p.m. lights-out rule, they must be escorted in by an officer.

Although Carella is thankful to have a place to stay for the night, he feels like the deck is stacked against him.

“You get charged for sleeping in an abandoned house and if you get caught, you get charged with criminal trespassing,” he said. “I feel like it’s not right. I didn’t choose to be homeless. But with family passing away, it’s rough. It’s so hard for different races to get help. If you’re a certain race, it’s easier. I’m just doing the best I can to support my wife and I because it’s really stressful. If the county could help with funding and even with people that have addiction and help with that, it would be a plus too.”

Asked if addiction is a big part of the problem for him, Carella, with a tiny piercing jutting out of the top of his left cheekbone under his eye, didn’t hesitate.

“Yes. I have addiction problems, so it is what it is,” he said. “If you don’t have insurance and you try to get into somewhere … it’s a four-month waiting list. When you want help, you can’t get the help and they expect you to just keep doing what you’re doing — and it’s not right.”

Asked if he was aware of any drug-addiction counseling or detox services that he could get more information about at the shelter, he said, just as abruptly, “No.”

Carella, a day out of jail, thinks the shelters don’t do enough.

“This is all great, but they kick you out at 6 a.m.,” says Carella. “You’re basically walking around and you can’t go anywhere,” he said. “The only thing open at that time is McDonald’s and if you don’t buy anything, they kick you out.

“It’s sad,” he added. “And a lot of people, if they are not in this situation, they look down on you. And I feel like that’s not right at all because it can flip easily. They can be in our shoes. It’s a real sad thing. I didn’t ask to be homeless, but with family issues, it’s rough. We had places. A few months ago, we were renting. But one little thing happens like you lose your job and can’t pay rent for a week and they tell you to get out; it’s messed up. I just try to stay positive with everything I’m going through.”

According to volunteer Caroline Smith they’ve served about 100 plates this January night. Chicken, pasta, macaroni and cheese, coffee, dessert. While some guests go outside for a cigarette, most remain inside with their family or sit alone. There are folks from all walks of life, several races, men, women, and children. The mayor of Bridgeton, Albert Kelly, stops by to support the volunteers. Pastor Steve Harris stops by with his wife to do the same and make sure everything’s running as smooth as possible. The warming center’s main coordinator is running around from task to task, unfettered by the large group of guests.

Smith says there is also a soup kitchen at the church on Sundays.

“Here at Bethany Grace, we’ve been volunteering about six years or more, but we started at Bethany S.D.A. Church,” says Smith. “We take care of the homeless, feeding them on Sunday, we have a soup kitchen. They’ve come every Sunday for over 10 years.”

Michael Wunnenberg.

Sitting alone at a table in a camouflage trucker’s hat, worn blue jeans, sneakers, and a T-shirt, Michael Wunnenberg is at Bridgeton’s Code Blue shelter for the first time. He says he usually goes to the shelter in Penns Grove, Salem County, but has come to Bridgeton’s for a “change of pace.” He estimates it’s his second season being homeless and he’s been in and out of shelters.

“It’s temporary relief; it’s warm,” he says in a polite manner. “You’re not out in the elements at least. They do offer you a meal and beverage. Blankets and something to sleep on. [It’s] comfortable, somewhat.”

Wunnenberg says a “series of events” led to him being homeless. “I lost my mom.,” he said. “I had already lost my dad. My marriage fell apart. It’s just a spiral from there.”

“What are you supposed to do after that?” a reporter asked him.

“Exactly. The rentals, unless you’re sharing something, it’s crazy. It’s outrageous. This is part of the homeless problem because rent is so much. I, myself, am limited. I’m retired and disabled. Not by choice, but it has to be that way. Myself, I can’t afford half the stuff that’s out there. I don’t know what’s next. I have been through welfare and asked for help with the rapid re-housing program. They want to run me a credit check, well I don’t have any credit and they want to charge you to do it. That is why I am the way I am.”

I can’t afford half the stuff that’s out there.

Asked if there are any programs available or that he’s looked into at the shelter, he says no.

“I have no clue. This is my first stay here.”

While the shelter on this particular night is near capacity, it’s a trend that the volunteers have been seeing for a while. Some of the volunteers and guests believe it’s the lack of jobs in the city of Bridgeton that has led to the homeless problem exploding in recent years — despite the efforts in the other direction by the county and organizations such as M25 Initiative.

“All the factories are gone,” says Mason, whose been volunteering for several years, “giving back” to the community where he was born. “This used to be a booming town. I was raised in Bridgeton all my life. [But] once the factories left, this city died. It died. There’s nothing here.”

Aside from the lack of employment opportunities both Carella and Wunnenberg say that housing is a big issue and that rents are getting out of control.

Wunnenberg says the housing issue needs to be addressed in South Jersey.

“If foreclosures that are vacant, why don’t they lease them out or something? A program pending on a situation, it might be able to [provide] some income, if not, chores or something just to keep people off the streets. There’s nothing around here to do. There’s nothing here in Millville. Six a.m. with these Code Blues, what do you go out to [after that]?”

When asked what keeps him going, he responded:

“Not much. Every day is a battle. I just want to get through this. I don’t know where the end is. I want to look back at it and laugh, hopefully.”

Carella has an optimistic side as well. He’s been sober for a week (due to his jail stint) and like Wunnenberg, he thinks jobs-for-shelter would be a program that could work.

“I just got out of jail today. I’ve been clean for a week now so hopefully that keeps up. I try to be positive with everything. As long as I stay straight, good things will happen. I did have sobriety for seven months before, so I know what it feels like. It’s not a long time, for me seven months is a long time, but I couldn’t do two days. I don’t know, I just hope they could help out more. All of these abandoned buildings around here. Just open something up. Like I said, go there and sign up for this for housing or food stamps and clean up around the building for two nights, but I can’t call that.”

Carella says he used to attend church, but that the only church he goes to now is the warming center. He says it’s tough to feel anything but stress, especially with regard to the vicious circle of his circumstances.

“I have a higher power that I believe in,” he said. “I try and ask for help and guidance … and see where it leads, but it’s just rough [and] I get into that attitude where I’m like: ‘screw everything, nobody can tell me nothing.’ I hate getting to that point because not only do I bring myself down, I bring my wife down … and I don’t want that because I love her. I try to do the best I can to support us. Make sure we have food and somewhat [of a ] place to stay that’s warm.”

Smith, who has seen the M25 and its offshoot initiatives evolve over the past several years, says that she is happy, even on a cold and busy night, the progress that’s been made with regard to the community-service effort.

“Tonight, it makes me feel good to see so many people come in from out in the cold and to be able to help the people,” she says, “because we’ve always done community service work. That’s what we do at our church all the time. So to see the progress that is being made is great.”

Nina Contento contributed interview questions to this story.

VIDEO: Code Blue Begins Preparing Cumberland County Homeless for Winter Weather 


Interview with Volunteer Brenda Table-Giorno

What do you need from our readers?

Donations are always great. We need a lot of food donations because a lot of the volunteers pay for that out of pocket. Also, just clothing. We definitely needs hats, gloves, scarves. We go through a lot of boots and sneakers because their feet are wet all of the time.”

Where can people drop that stuff off?

Bethany Grace Church. They can call the office and we can make arrangements to meet them or if it’s anything with Housing First, we are always in need of furniture and stuff for housing, like lamps and dressers. We are in dire need of those.

You say you’ve been doing this for four years now. Have you seen the number of people who come to the Code Blues or the warming centers change over those four years?

Yes I have, but it seems they are newer faces because [with] Housing First, we house 28 of them, but it seems like it’s making room for new [ones]. One night, we had 30 cots taken and we had 10 people in line waiting to come in. So they have until 9pm, if not, their bed is given away to the next in line.”

So even though more people are getting involved, there’s still a need?

Absolutely. And especially this year because we’ve had so much cold and we’re all volunteers. We’re not getting paid at all and a lot of people have other jobs. So when you have 20 days in a row and you need 12 hour shifts, because our shifts are like 9-12, 12-3, 3-6. We’ve had people work 12-6am. That’s a long shift and they have to go to work the next day. So even if you can volunteer one hour, it would help a lot.”

Some people are weary about volunteering at homeless shelters. What would you say to them?

We wand everybody when they come in. There’s no alcohol on the premises. We make sure we get through all the bags and everything. After 9pm, the lights go out, they’re not allowed outside and they have to be in bed. If they don’t go to bed, they’re out. And if they go past their quota time like 9pm, they have to come in with the police. It’s not like a revolving door.”

So you feel safe here?

I feel very safe, yes. The cops come through every hour and they walk through so the cops are here with us at all times.”

What is the experience like for you?

It’s so heartwarming. To know they got a cot, warm bed, blankets and warm socks and we also have a shower ministry on Monday nights from 4-6:30pm and they get a hot shower, brand new pair of socks, undershirt, underwear and whatever layers of clothes they have on, they can pick that many out of the bin and then we take their dirty clothes to the dry cleaners and they clean them for us so when they come back next week, everything is fresh for them.”

Anybody can volunteer. Do you have to be 18?

Yes, 18.

Interview with Volunteer Caroline Smith

Caroline Smith

You mentioned there are several local churches in the community that work together with regard to the Code Blue efforts?

Yes, there are several churches. Bethany Grace, they are one of the churches that house. St. Andrews, St. Teresa’s, and the Salvation Army, all of those house people. But all the churches in the area take part, they bring in the food. Like tonight is Union Baptist Temple, they cook tonight. Each one of the churches and different community organizations, we have Hands of Passion, there are a lot of people that come in and provide the food. Seventh Day Adventist, we are in charge of housing tonight …but the other churches bring in the food.”

Can you talk about how Bridgeton has changed over the years?

Yes it has changed over the years. Like tonight, we’ve probably served over a hundred plates of food. Some people come in to stay and they have beds and others come in to eat. All are welcome. Over the years, I’m retired from the City of Bridgeton Tax Office and I’ve been retired so I knew these people when they were doing well. Some when things have went not so well. I’ve been here all my life.”

What do you think are some of the main attributes as to why some folks are not doing well and are here tonight?

I have seen a few people when they had jobs and I think when the factories went out and some had been with factories. We had Owen Illinois, which hired a lot of people and when that went out, a lot of things went out. For the younger people I see in Bridgeton now, I see that drugs have taken over and other things and just not being able to afford a place … that makes them homeless.

Do you think there’s hope for the youth out there in Bridgeton today?

Yes. There’s hope for the youth in Bridgeton, but the only hope they have is to get a good education. If they don’t get a good education, it’s going to be tough on them and I think that’s where some of the failures are now with some of the older people that are homeless here. They didn’t get the proper education and didn’t go through the proper channel.

Earlier today, you were at an event. Can you talk a little bit about housing first?

Yes, Housing first is a place that they put people into homes. This morning we put a young man into a home, which we were very proud of. We’ve done some in Vineland, Bridgeton and Millville, putting them in. They have to be homeless for over two to three years and they’ve been out in the street. So they go through this program and today the young man we put in, he has a house and a two bedroom apartment. He’s very happy. He’s been working hard trying to get himself together and this is the start I believe that will help him. Because it’s hard for the homeless to get themselves together. They have no place to go or stay and then it’s hard to go out for jobs if you have nowhere to get yourself together.”

Local School Donates Over 700 Socks to Cumberland County Code Blue Coalition 

VIDEO: Gateway Community Action Partnership to Host Sock Drive for Local Code Blue Program 

M25 Initiative Hosts a Cumberland County Code Blue Breakfast Fundraiser 

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