Penniless to pay rent, Marianne Dunnkosky and her daughter again packed their belongings and left the Route 9 motel they called home in Ocean County.
They had moved in and out of motels so many times in the past few years that leaving the motel in Barnegat Township meant nothing more than grabbing a couple of large, green plastic garbage bags containing old, worn-out clothes and tattered blankets. After all, a friend had promised Dunnkosky, 52, that she and her daughter, Marianne, 24, could stay at another motel in Lacey Township for a discounted rate when she received her disability check April 1.
Living in a motel room was better than living in a tent in the woods — which is what the pair had done in January and February.
They had endured the bitter-cold temperatures in the Barnegat woods. They lived behind a convenience store so they could sometimes go inside, buy hot food and get some relief from the snow and ice.
And that’s when they met Bill Southrey and Paul Hulse of Haven/Beat the Streets Inc. The two often search parking lots and wooded areas to find people living without shelter.
Southrey used his own money as well as money from Haven to help pay for a room in Barnegat in March.
Dunnkosky and her daughter felt things were getting better when they moved to a less expensive motel room April 1. Dunnkosky was confident her daughter’s job at a local pizzeria would bring in enough money to pay for the new, discounted room.
But days after moving, her daughter broke a bone in her foot. She couldn’t walk and therefore couldn’t work, Dunnkosky said.
That’s when the money ran out again.
And that’s when Marianne Dunnkosky and her daughter decided to go back into the woods.
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The Dunnkoskys are just two among hundreds of homeless people living in Ocean County — and among thousands in New Jersey.
The 2009 census reported 500 people homeless in Ocean County. The New Jersey 2014 Point-in-Time Count of the Homeless indicates there were 13,900 homeless people in the state.
Causes of homelessness include alocholism, drug addiction, divorce and unemployment, according to social services experts.
When four Atlantic City casinos closed last year, the majority of the employees who lost their jobs were earning the lowest wages, and unemployment wasn’t expected to be enough to supplement their incomes, an economic forecaster and social workers said.
Last year, a study by Stockton University students examined the scenario of several Atlantic City casinos closing in one year. The study projected the closings would mean the loss of about 5,000 casino jobs, 1,460 noncasino jobs and $158 million in earnings lost from the local economy.
“Homelessness can happen to anyone. And it’s only going to get worse before it gets better,” Southrey said.
He and Hulse worked closely with the Dunnkoskys, finding them in the woods before a rainstorm last week and again providing temporary shelter.
“The homeless should not live in the woods. It’s just not right,” Southrey said.
He and Hulse spent $1,500 for the March stay in Barnegat for the Dunnkoskys. The funds came from donations.
Southrey is president and CEO of the Haven Ministry, an arm of The Haven of Hope in Atlantic County. Hulse is the director of outreach for Haven/Beat the Streets.
“The $1,500 doesn’t go far,” he said.
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The Dunnkosky family wasn’t always homeless.
Married for 25 years, Dunnkosky and her husband, James, 75, rented a house for years in Berkeley Township.
She was a stay-at-home mom who raised four children.
Her husband worked for a tree service.
Homelessness began two years ago, after the couple was evicted from a Bayville house because they couldn’t keep up the rent payments.
They moved into a motel on Long Beach Island, she said.
James Dunnkosky died in April 2013.
“Things were difficult sometimes back then, but I had my husband. I lost my husband two years ago this month (April),” she recalled.
Her children are grown, but she remains in touch with them.
The oldest of Dunnkosky’s children, Chris Youmans, 33, lives in Bayville; son James, 23, lives with a friend in Ocean County; daughter Tina Dunnkosky, 26, lives at a Barnegat motel with her children — Tina, 6, Ken, 4, Emily, 2, and Lillian, 6 months. Tina Dunnkosky and the children’s father, Ken Steston, 25, are both unemployed and have been living at the same motel for a year. They said they are working with social services to find a home to rent.
“I can still remember the last house we rented. We had some good times. Christmas was probably the best time for us because the churches helped us with Christmas gifts,” Dunnkosky said.
Marianne Dunnkosky said she fears the woods.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen to us. I’m really scared,” the elder Dunnkosky said.
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In 2014, Southrey and Hulse helped more than 68 people who had been the housed by Tent City Lakewood Project with furniture essentials and transportation.
Haven helped find jobs for the people who were forced to relocate from Tent City. Now, Southrey and Hulse say they are trying to work with drug awareness groups and Ocean County government to develop more strategies.
Overall, 160 people received assistance from Haven in Ocean County last year, they said.
“We have brought hundreds of homeless families over the last three years back to life. More than 3,000 families have come through Haven/Beat the Streets Inc. services from the streets,” Hulse said of Haven, also located in Atlantic City.
Southrey, former director of the Atlantic City Rescue Mission, is determined to find housing for Dunnkosky and her daughter. But he has to find a place they can afford.
The elder Dunnkosky said she survives on $700 in disability benefits. Her daughter used to make minimum wage, working four days a week at a Little Caesars pizzeria in Barnegat. Most of their money was spent on rent, and they fed themselves by using $48 in food stamps each month.
“There’s not much to feed yourself with,” Dunnkosky said.
Hulse and Southrey say they’ll be able to better help people like Dunnkosky and her daughter once they purchase the former First United Methodist Church on Route 9 in the Lanoka Harbor section of Lacey Township. They hope to buy the church for $200,000 and use it for services as well as a warming center in the winter.
The church doors won’t ever be locked, Southrey said.
At the campsite, Dunnkosky and her daughter huddle in blankets on still-cold spring nights. They wake early and head to Route 9 for breakfast at the nearby convenience store.
The elder Dunnkosky said she is scared but determined.
“I know there is something better out there for me and for my daughter,” she said, standing outside a wooded area near Route 9, calmly smoking a cigarette. She closed her eyes as she inhaled, as if thinking she were anywhere else.
And then Marianne Dunnkosky turned her back to the woods.
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