CLIFFWOOD BEACH, Aberdeen — In 2003, Amy Baddeley, a newly sober mother, found herself homeless.
The folks at Manna House – a transitional housing program for women and their children – took her in. They taught her how to budget, how to get a job, how to be accountable.
Today, the Keyport resident is an active member of the community and runs her own business, the NJ Queens of Clean.
“I am a Manna House success story,” said Baddeley.
So the news that Manna House was shutting its doors after nearly 29 years has been devastating, for Baddeley and for many other graduates of the long-standing program.
“We cried like babies,” Mariaan Crenshaw, a 1998 graduate, said when she heard the news. “Where are these women going to go?”
WHAT’S NEXT: Supporters plan to take their case to the Monmouth County Board of Freeholders, who are scheduled to meet March 24 in Manalapan.
Manna House shut its doors Friday. The staff was unable to keep the lights on as referrals from Monmouth County – its main source of funding – have dropped in recent years.
The non-profit, which could accommodate up to 10 families, has not been at capacity since August 2014, executive director Peggy Comfort said during an interview last week. They have not received a referral from the Monmouth County Division of Social Services since November.
Comfort says she was told that the pool of eligible families has declined, and of those who could be placed at the facility, some may not want to participate in the kind of structured program they offer.
But Comfort finds that assertion hard to believe, given the multiple calls she fielded daily from women in search of assistance. She thinks finances, not lack of need, are to blame.
The county pays Manna House $100 per night per family, according to Comfort.
To be placed at Manna House, Comfort said families must receive benefits through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, program, and be eligible for emergency assistance. (County spokeswoman Laura Kirkpatrick said families must be enrolled in TANF and WorkFirst NJ to be eligible for temporary housing in Monmouth County. She could not be reached for clarification by Thursday.)
Comfort believes that the county’s interpretation of who qualifies for assistance has gotten stricter, leading to fewer people being deemed eligible.
“I do think more recently there’s been a tightening of the emergency assistance regulations and a tightening up of how they are then interpreted,” Comfort said.
But Kirkpatrick says that Manna House caters to a “very specific” group of families. She notes that only female-headed households are allowed to live at the facility, inhabitants must be Monmouth County residents and women who are permanently disabled are not eligible.
Some families have chosen to leave the program or have not complied with its rules, which include following a curfew and participating in the cleanup of communal areas, said Kirkpatrick. Some families may also prefer Linkages, a transitional housing program in Tinton Falls, because they can have their own living room rather than a shared space, said Kirkpatrick.
“It’s more private,” she said.
Referrals overall for emergency transitional housing have been decreasing across the board for several years, said Kirkpatrick.
In 2014, there were 387 families eligible for transitional housing in Monmouth County. Today, that number is down to 139, said Kirkpatrick.
Comfort said Manna House would be willing to accept new populations, such as single women or women who are disabled and cannot work.
The county doesn’t appear to have that discretion, however. Kirkpatrick said the state and federal government sets the rules for who can be placed in temporary housing. To receive payment for placements, the county must adhere to the state and federal guidelines.
“For 28 years, they’ve been providing a very needed service,” Kirkpatrick said of Manna House. “And it’s unfortunate when that can’t continue.”
Families can stay at Manna House for up to 12 months. During their stay, they receive coaching in life skills such as budgeting, housekeeping, menu planning, and how to get and keep a job. Upon successful graduation, they receive a one-year rental housing benefit from the county.
Even after graduates moved on, Comfort said Manna House would continue to help former residents and their children, assisting with everything from a job loss to filling out college applications.
Manna House is calling on the county to guarantee eight referrals by the end of March. They also want their contract with the county to be changed to stipulate payment for 10 families per month, regardless of referral, at a cost of $360,000 annually, in the hopes that this will motivate the county to place more women at the facility.
They have already garnered some backing from the Keyport Borough Council, which voted unanimously last week to pass a resolution in support of keeping Manna House open. Councilwoman Sophia Lamberson also suggested having the town’s grant writers provide assistance.
“You don’t close down a site like this,” Council President Joe Sheridan said. “You reward it.”