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Former New Jersey governor goes undercover as homeless man

(Reuters) - A phony beard, a fake tattoo and clothes dragged through grass and stained with coffee were all it took to transform former New Jersey Governor Richard Codey into a homeless man looking for shelter on a frigid night this week.

Mary Jo Codey looks at her husband Richard Codey (R) as he is made up to be a homeless man in Newark, New Jersey, March 5, 2012. A phony beard, a fake tattoo and clothes dragged through grass and stained with coffee were all it took to transform former New Jersey Governor Richard Codey into a homeless man looking for shelter on a frigid night this week. Mandatory Credit REUTERS/William Perlman/The Star-Ledger

His self-appointed undercover mission to spotlight what he calls discrimination against men by shelters took about three months of planning before Codey stood at the door of the Goodwill Rescue mission in Newark, New Jersey at 8 p.m. on Monday, asking to be let in.

Codey, 65, who is a state senator but disguised himself as a homeless man, had already been denied admission to about 25 other local shelters because he was not receiving welfare or other government assistance, he told Reuters on Wednesday.

“We called and I said, ‘My uncle, he’s homeless, we want to find him a place at night to sleep.’ Each time I was told, ‘Does he have SSI? Welfare? Disability?’ When we said ‘No,’ we were told there was no room at the inn.”

Codey, frequently mentioned as a possible Democratic candidate for governor, plans to take his findings to seek more federal money for the homeless. The National Alliance to End Homelessness said more than 636,000 people were homeless in the United States in 2011.

He is particularly concerned with single men and those with mental health issues, who he says are unfairly shut out of the shelter system. He said women and families have far greater access to emergency housing.

When Goodwill agreed to take him in, offering a thin bedroll, a blanket and a spot on a linoleum floor with 20 other men, he thought he’d finally found a haven.

Then came the shower call.

“I was terrified because I knew if I had a shower, my makeup was coming off,” said Codey, whose undercover team included a makeup artist who spent nearly an hour transforming him, painting tobacco stains on his teeth and drawing broken blood vessels and dirt on his skin.

By avoiding eye contact with the worker rounding men up for showers, he managed to slip by.

Sitting on the hard floor, he eyed chairs that were stacked nearby but declared off-limits to men in the shelter.

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“No one is allowed to sit in them. You are strictly there to lay down,” Codey said.

WrestleMania blared on television for two hours until it was lights out at 10:30 p.m.

Codey said he drifted off for about an hour, his hip sore from sleeping on the uncomfortable floor. In the middle of the night, he struck up a conversation with another man and asked him what he would do when he left the shelter.

“He told me ‘I’m really lucky’ and explained that he had a bus pass so he could ride and keep warm,” Codey said.

The man, better dressed than Codey, said he was out of work and had hoped to stay with a friend but it didn’t pan out.

“I’m laying there, thinking about how good my life is and he says he’s lucky. Wow. That really puts it in perspective,” Codey said.

Codey, who served as acting governor of New Jersey for two years following the 2004 resignation of Gov. Jim McGreevey amid a sex scandal, has been a longtime advocate for the mentally ill. Government statistics show that a vast majority of homeless people suffer mental illness.

In 1987, in his early years in the state Senate, Codey went undercover to help expose flaws in care at a state-run psychiatric hospital.

This week, Codey said he was admitted to Goodwill shelter on the condition he register for federal assistance in the morning but he left early and avoided it.

Ron Schober, the shelter’s executive director, said help signing up for benefits is offered to shelter residents but not mandatory. He also said residents are welcome to use the chairs before the shelter closes at 6:30 p.m. but since Codey was taken in after hours, the room was being prepared for sleeping.

On a wintry Tuesday morning, Codey stepped out of the shelter and headed back to his work at the New Jersey statehouse. He rejected any suggestion that his undercover mission was politically motivated.

“My goal is to get homeless people a room at night and to speak with the federal government about getting the money to do that,” Codey said.

Asked whether he plans to run for governor, he said that was a decision he would make after the November presidential election. Political pundits say there could be a vacancy in the New Jersey governor’s mansion as Governor Chris Christie is often mentioned as a potential vice presidential candidate.

Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Paul Thomasch