Bobby Rosenberg is a former U.S. Army officer with academic degrees, but legal troubles left him homeless on the streets of Middlesex County.
Pamela Johnson is a former crack cocaine and heroin user who became homeless as a result of her addictions.
Both told stories that ended on a note of success and hope, but others who were not so fortunate were the focus of an interfaith gathering Dec. 21 at Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen.
They were part of the 14th annual National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, a program of the National Coalition for the Homeless held on or near the first day of winter, when those without shelter are most vulnerable.
Drawing Christian, Jewish, and Muslim attendees and clergy, the Neve Shalom event raised awareness of the plight of the homeless in Middlesex County and memorialized the six county residents who died alone and homeless last year.
Neve Shalom’s Rabbi Gerald Zelizer, read the names of the six — Jill Riga, Kim Conanan, Keith Fernandez, Michael Wishnia, “Six Pack” Sue, and Kimberley C — during a candlelight ceremony in the synagogue courtyard. Zelizer said he had asked the county agencies who deal with the homeless for additional information on them, but was told they knew nothing more than their names.
“The poignancy of that struck me,” said Zelizer. “They remain outside looking in even in death.”
The event’s cosponsors included the Middlesex County Board of Chosen Freeholders and Board of Social Services, the Borough of Metuchen, the JCC of Middlesex County, Elijah’s Promise in New Brunswick, Temple Emanu-El in Edison, Congregation Beth Mordecai in Perth Amboy, and other social service organizations.
The ceremonial folding of the American flag was done by Commander Mel Meszarous and John Heacock of the John Basilone Detachment of the Marine Corps League in Milltown. The outside ceremony included the playing of Taps, a song of remembrance played on bagpipes, and the chanting of “El Maleh Rahamim” (one of the six who died was Jewish).
Event chair and Neve Shalom member Steven Nagel shared startling statistics from the “Point of Time” survey conducted in Middlesex last Jan. 29. It found that of the 262 homeless families with 830 individuals, 84 percent were headed by female single parents, many of them victims of domestic violence. There were homeless people in every municipality in the county, including some children living in cars.
“The main reasons for the loss of housing were: being asked to leave a shared residence, domestic violence, medical reasons, loss of employment, and evictions,” said Nagel. “Only 1 percent of Middlesex County’s homeless are homeless due to substance abuse or mental illness.”
He asked that all those in attendance leave with a “new awareness for the homeless and of those who have died from exposure, illness, or hate crimes. Nobody wants to be homeless, especially in the winter. It’s not just unpleasant, boring, and scary; homeless people face constant exposure to the elements, vulnerability to harassment, sleep deprivation, dehydration, and starvation.”
Rosenberg, who suffers from mild bipolar disorder, said he was in the Army in the ’80s, but left to work toward a master’s degree and later graduated from medical school. He returned to the military as an officer, putting in a total of 15 years of service.
He never took the medical boards, he said, because he became a caregiver to his ailing grandparents. He moved in with his parents in East Brunswick; after his father died in 2006, he was left to care for his mother. In 2012 neighbors called the police after his mother came to them saying her son had deserted her.
“My mother knew where I was, but she forgot,” said Rosenberg, who was arrested and charged with abandoning a senior. He spent four months in the Middlesex County Correctional Institute. Just before Yom Kippur he got hold of a High Holy Day prayerbook and, he said, “I asked Hashem to get me through this.”
“The day I was released, my mother died,” said Rosenberg. He was homeless until he met an Orthodox man involved with the County Board of Social Services who introduced him to the Jewish community and he got assistance finding a shelter. “Life is very interesting,” he said, “It takes you through all these trips and journeys.”
Rosenberg is now in the Imani Park Transitional Housing Program in Edison and said he is applying for jobs and hopes to get into affordable housing. He is in the final stages of getting his criminal record expunged and attends daily services at Congregation Poile Zedek in New Brunswick.
Johnson, known as “Chef Pam,” received the loudest applause of the night when she said it was the 21st anniversary of her becoming clean. She said that one of the best things that happened to her was getting into a women’s shelter. Johnson said she overcame her addiction and was accepted into the culinary job training program at Elijah’s Promise in New Brunswick and now runs the soup kitchen there.
“I run the soup kitchen because someone believed in me,” said Johnson. “That’s what we have to do for each other. The homeless person is not just the addict or the bum on the corner…. There have been good people out there for a long time. People like me.”