Imagine being homeless, unable to find permanent housing and getting frustrated with each passing day. That was the life of cancer survivor Christopher Mitchell who moved to New Jersey in April from North Carolina. At first he was paying for a place to stay with his disability money combined with his girlfriend’s income. But when the pair separated, he was unable to afford housing on his own.
Mitchell isn’t alone. There are many individuals without permanent housing in Newark who can benefit from additional help. The Better Life Engagement Center, located at 101 Fourteenth Ave., Newark, is now a resource for the homeless population.
The center opened July 18 and all who are experiencing homelessness are welcome. New Community Corporation owns and manages the facility while Collaborative Support Programs of New Jersey (CSPNJ) runs the day-to-day operations of the Better Life Engagement Center, which takes up the first floor of the building.
From the day the center opened, it began helping those in need. In the first month, it provided services to 200 people and it now gets 35 to 40 visitors per day.
“There is a great need for services to the homeless population. We at New Community are committed to helping the underserved and vulnerable and are happy to provide a space where people in need can come to improve the quality of their lives,” said New Community CEO Richard Rohrman.
The Better Life Engagement Center helps visitors obtain documents like birth certificates and photo IDs. Staff members help visitors find permanent housing, search for jobs, write resumes and prepare for interviews with outfits and coaching. The facility also provides food, water and coffee daily for visitors. There is a TV in the eating area and a pool table for recreational activity. There is an outdoor patio with furniture so that visitors can eat outside when the weather is nice. The center also has a computer lab and library for visitors to use, as well as a fitness center. Staff members are able to be advocates for those who need it and are also able to refer individuals to detox if they request it.
Better Life Engagement Center Director Shareatha Webster said the goal of the center is to connect people to services that are in their community that they might not know exist. She said the facility is meant to be a safe, non-judgemental space for people to come to improve their situation.
“It doesn’t always mean that you’re going to have the white picket fence, but a better life is something that you didn’t have before that maybe you can have today,” Webster said. “Whether it’s a meal, whether it’s a job, whether it’s housing or whether it’s meeting a friend, to me, that’s a better life.”
Visitors to the center have had positive experiences and many now volunteer to help with operations.
Kimberly James comes to the Better Life Engagement Center every day. She and her partner Kim Pickett fell on hard times and are currently living at Helping the Homeless shelter on Mount Prospect Avenue in Newark.
“It’s like a safe haven,” James said of the Better Life Engagement Center. “Everybody’s friendly. They’re not afraid to intermingle with us. It doesn’t matter if you’re wearing the same clothes, if you were able to shower. And the staff is really great and helps us.”
Curtis Cottle is also staying at Helping the Homeless and introduced James and Pickett to the Better Life Engagement Center. He was referred to the center by the shelter and said he was welcomed with open arms.
“I highly recommend this place for anyone if they just need to come by to regroup, to have a glass of water, some tea. This place is very open and welcoming,” Cottle said.
Mitchell says the facility lives up to its name.
“It’s kind of cliché to say, but the moment I set foot in that door, I have experienced a better life,” he said.
Mitchell first saw the Better Life building before the center was operational. He was living at the Sussex House shelter on Sussex Avenue in Newark when he happened to walk by again and saw the doors were open. Staff members were able to help him secure permanent housing at New Community Commons Senior, 140 South Orange Ave., Newark, and referred him to Catholic Charities, which helped get him the money for the security deposit.
“I was struggling so much the first four months. All the doors were slammed in my face,” Mitchell said. “I was praying for a miracle and I believe this was it.”
The Better Life Engagement Center operates with a director, a resource specialist and two wellness mentors, as well as volunteers. Its hours are Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information, call 862-229-1400 or visit the facility at 101 Fourteenth Ave., Newark, NJ 07103.