I never thought I would be homeless. I never thought a Google search would change my life. And I never thought I’d become an activist who has spent the last four years pursuing legislation on “tiny homes” that could fundamentally alter how homelessness is addressed in New Jersey.

For most of my life my passion was the arts. I was raised in Highland Park and Griggstown, and my mother was prominent in Middlesex County and statewide arts circles. My father was a film editor, photographer, and theater director, and I grew up in his darkroom. I traveled in my teens and 20s to pursue photojournalism, but for most of my adult life I worked with my mother in nonprofit arts and education. Some 30 years later, in my early 50s, I traveled to San Miguel, Mexico, where my half-sister was living, and my passion for photojournalism was rekindled.

After returning from San Miguel, I sought out a photo story close to home. I googled homelessness and discovered “Tent City” in Lakewood, New Jersey. And it was the search that changed my life.

I spent four years documenting the living conditions of homeless people in tents on a municipality-owned patch of woods near Route 9. I became so immersed in the situation I even became homeless for a short time myself, living out of my car and later in a small trailer. I work now work full time as an office administrator and bought a home, but I’m still always aware that I and many others are only a paycheck or two away from this situation.

I was involved with tent city during some turbulent times with legal wrangling between the township that wanted the makeshift campsite razed and the dozens of people who called the encampment home. I watched it get bulldozed after a court settlement in 2013. Everyone in the tent city was given the option of taking a few hundred dollars or getting a year of free housing — up to $1,050 per month in rent — from the township. That was the resolution. I couldn’t believe it was accepted and it made absolutely no sense to me. Many ended up back in the woods. A few have passed away. I went on a mission then and haven’t stopped. I plan on continuing advocating for and documenting houseless people for as long as it takes.

My experience in Lakewood prompted me to initiate the drafting of bill S177/A3072. At its core the bill proposes a pilot program that would provide funding to select municipalities to construct “tiny homes” — smaller than 300 square feet — that would provide a new source of affordable housing for low-income families and individuals. This is not a novel idea: people are building micro-housing around the country as a means to address our nation’s affordable housing crisis.

Since I brought a proposal to State Senator Stephen Sweeney’s office in 2014 I have been working tirelessly to get this bill signed into law. During the course of this bill’s life, many individuals and organizations have enthusiastically embraced its core principals and solutions. Among these ardent supporters are the Mercer County Reentry Task Force, the NJ Coalition to End Homelessness, and Isles.

The self-reliant, sustainable model outlined in S177/A3072 is a significant step towards the deployment of pilot programs that will achieve that goal. It is a fact that, when empowered with a sense of purpose and dignity, our most vulnerable populations become less dependent on our government and rise towards independence.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes that a home is essential to health and well-being and it clearly states that everyone has the right to health, well-being and a safe, affordable place to sleep. In the absence of these guarantees, spirits weaken and dependency grows. For me, this bill makes truly affordable housing possible. It fosters empowerment and self-sufficiency.

There should be no such thing as “affordable housing”; all housing should be affordable. Yet the need for affordable housing continues to grow every year and the result is an unbearable economic burden on the state and its tax payers. The number of unsheltered homeless grew by 9 percent from 2016 to 2017 alone. If we are ever going to conquer this crisis, we must think outside the box and consider the viability of alternative solutions. We must engage from within our communities and mobilize to give these pilot programs our encouragement. We must overcome the “NIMBY” mindset.

Currently the bill is in a Senate committee chaired by Senator Paul Sarlo. He decides if it comes forward for a vote. On the Assembly end the speaker of the house, Craig Coughlin, must bring it forward for a vote.

I hope people will write or call the legislators mentioned above and tell them to support the bill. Additional support is greatly needed.

Senator Paul Sarlo: 201-804-8118 or sensarlo@njleg.org.

Assemblyman Craig Coughlin: 732-855-7441 or asmcoughlin@njleg.org.

To read the complete text of the bill visit www.njleg.state.nj.us/20182019/S0500/177_I1.html

For a discussion of the legislation with Senator Troy Singleton, Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker, and Better Way Executive Director Perry Shaw III, visit Vimeo.com and search “Open Source 16.18.”

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