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Toms River HOPE Center gives residents a helping hand in difficult times

Toms River HOPE Center gives residents a helping hand in difficult times

 

Toms River, NJ – Three years into a pandemic that has led to increased need for everything from food to shelter and utility assistance, the clients who come to Toms River’s HOPE Center are facing a new challenge: soaring inflation.

“It’s really not easy. With the increase in gas prices and food prices, we’re seeing another influx of people who are coming to us seeking services,” said Amy VanBezooijen, executive director of the center, which is located on the campus of the Presbyterian Church of Toms River.

The HOPE Center, officially known as House of Hope of Ocean County Inc., was opened in February 2008 by the Interfaith Clergy Association of Greater Toms River, a group of leaders of diverse faiths who saw a need for an organization to assist the growing number of community members in crisis, VanBezooijen said.

Toms River HOPE Center gives residents a helping hand in difficult times

Hope Center pantry volunteer Mike Hudson, Toms River, helps a client shop at the Toms River facility Tuesday, March 7, 2022. Thomas P. Costello

The clergy association also works closely with the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office and Toms River police.

The center includes a food pantry, a community garden where fresh vegetables are grown in the warmer months, and a client services area where people can seek assistance with everything from finding shelter, getting counseling, or obtaining vouchers to help pay for gas or utility costs.

It has an annual budget of $180,000; funding comes from various churches, donations and grants. Like other nonprofits that assist people in need, the HOPE Center has seen a huge increase in the number of people seeking help.

Demand for the HOPE Center’s services spiked when COVID-19 led to a statewide shutdown in March 2020, leading to furloughs and layoffs, particularly for those working at restaurants, bars, hotels and other hospitality jobs in the area.

“People were bracing for this kind of short-term support they would need,” VanBezooijen said. “It wound up being much longer than that.”

Toms River HOPE Center gives residents a helping hand in difficult times

Hope Center pantry volunteer Mike Hudson, Toms River, helps a client shop at the Toms River facility Tuesday, March 7, 2022. Thomas P. Costello

In 2021, the center assisted 17,635 people, including 403 new clients; that was an increase of 34% over 2020. The food pantry, supplied by the Fulfill food bank, along with donations and contributions from Wawa and Walmart, distributed 265,33 pounds of food, up more than 16% over 2020.

The center gave out $3,119 in gift cards, provided 34 households with transportation, helped 27 with gas, water and electric bills, provided 930 nights of emergency shelter and helped shelter people for another 600 nights by providing rental assistance.

The need for shelter has soared, especially as affordable rentals and housing have become increasingly difficult to find in Ocean County. In 2021, the HOPE Center provided 179% more emergency shelter nights than in 2020; rental assistance rose by 400%.

“There has obviously been a big housing need, and a lack of availability,” said Ashlee Pense, client services coordinator for the HOPE Center. “There are a lot of clients staying at motels. Consider that their rent might be $300 a week, just to stay at a motel. That doesn’t include anything else.”

Finding motels to house people is also getting tougher; many motels in the area have shut down or have been purchased by developers in the last several years, meaning far fewer rooms are available, Pense said.

She noted that many local apartment complexes require application fees of $25 or even $50, and often have lengthy waiting lists. Those fees, along with the gas required to drive to complexes in various parts of the county, can make it cost prohibitive for lower-income people seeking a permanent place to live, Pense said.

Toms River HOPE Center gives residents a helping hand in difficult times

Hope Center Executive Director Amy VanBezooijen gives a tour of the pantry at the Toms River facility Tuesday, March 7 2022. Thomas P. Costello

The HOPE Center aims to assist those seeking housing by providing vouchers for gas, bus transportation or utilities. “I think it is rough all around for everybody,” Pense said.

The HOPE Center, which has five part-time staffers and more than 100 volunteers, shifted to pandemic mode in March 2020, limiting the number of volunteers on site, speaking to clients on the phone instead of in person, and handing people bagged food through the glass door of the onsite pantry.

Like other local nonprofits, the center has seen an influx of new clients during the pandemic, including many people who had never before sought help. “Because of the situation, we saw a whole new group of people that were coming,” she said.

Normally, one in every four people who visit the center are new clients; during the height of COVID-19 pandemic, that number rose to nine out of 10, VanBezooijen said. Among those helped at the center, she recalled, were two mothers, one who had been laid off from a service industry job, and another who had lost her job as a bus driver when schools switched to remote learning.

Toms River HOPE Center gives residents a helping hand in difficult times

A man departs the Hope Center’s Toms River facility Tuesday, March 7 2022. Thomas P. Costello

Both were newcomers to the center, VanBezooijen said.

Kitty Meyer was one of the few volunteers who worked at The HOPE Center throughout the pandemic, as the organization limited the number of people onsite.

“It was really very different people,” said Toms River resident Meyer, who has been a long-time volunteer at the center, often joined by other family members.

VanBezooijen said the center is gradually reopening to allow clients to visit in-person again. People who enter seeking help are registered and must provide information about their income and finances so that center staff can determine what they need.

They also interact with the people VanBezooijen called “the heart of our hope,” a group of compassionate, understanding volunteers who are available to listen to people in crisis.

Often the center works to link those in need with other organizations that can assist them; some clients require addiction treatment, mental health services or domestic violence counseling. VanBezooijen said the aim of the center is to help people get back on their feet, to assist them and advocate for them as they rebuild their lives.

Toms River HOPE Center gives residents a helping hand in difficult times

Janine Popovich, the Hope Center pantry clients services coordinator, is interviewed at the Toms River facility Tuesday, March 7 2022. Thomas P. Costello

Out of a devastating pandemic came at least one positive: increased collaboration between the various nonprofits that work to assist people in need, VanBezooijen said.

“There is a tremendous amount of collaboration with agencies in the community,” she said. “The need is so great, far greater than we anticipated.” For more information or to contact The HOPE Center, call 732-341-4447.

Courtesy of Asbury Park Press – Jean Mikle covers Toms River and several other Ocean County towns, and has been writing about local government and politics at the Jersey Shore for nearly 37 years. She’s also passionate about the Shore’s storied music scene. Contact her: @jeanmikle, jmikle@gannettnj.com.

Photos courtesy of Thomas P. Costello