Thursday, May 31, 2012

Homelessness Behind Closed Doors

On Wednesday, the Board of Supervisors Human Services Committee held a special meeting to discuss the two proposals received for providing housing for chronically homeless people in Columbia County. The first words spoken by committee chair Betty Young (Taghkanic) requested a motion to go into executive session. She was prepared for an objection from Register-Star reporter Nathan Mayberg. She'd brought county attorney Robert Fitzsimmons to the meeting, who was ready to recite, on cue, the justification for an executive session: they would be discussing the "medical, financial, credit, or employment history of an individual or corporation." As an added measure, since Fitzimmons was there to counsel the committee, they invoked "attorney-client privilege." Mayberg tells the story in today's Register-Star: "Homeless housing talks closed to public."

When the committee came out of executive session, Supervisor Bill Hughes (Hudson 4) announced that the proposals received were "not responsive to what the county is looking for" and proposed that the committee reject them both and "authorize the commissioner [Paul Mossman] to enter into a professional service contract to meet the needs of the county." When Debora Gilbert, who often writes for Columbia Paper, asked what needs weren't met by the proposals, she got a less than clear answer from Fitzsimmons which included such expressions as "apples to apples" comparison and "turnkey solution."

Just as the County frittered away time and money looking for a new site for the Department of Social Services, it now seems to be frittering away time and money looking for a way to address the problem of homelessness. In 2010, the County engaged the services of consultant William Moon to assess the homeless situation in Columbia County and make recommendations. His recommendations, which were reported in two articles by Francesca Olsen in the Register-Star ("DSS can do better" and "Ditch the motel model"), led to the County's ill-fated attempt to create the "congregate housing" suggested by Moon in a building owned by Phil Gellert on Columbia Street. 

In 2011, there was another study, this one done by CARES Inc., which promised to tell us how to end homelessness in Columbia County. Judging from an article about the study by John Mason, which appeared in the Register-Star, the recommendations did not seem to be the three-tier model that the County now seems to be pursuing, but who can tell? Neither Mossman nor the members of the Human Services Committee seem able to articulate--at least not in public--what the County is looking for beyond the kind of generalities expressed by Hughes at Wednesday's meeting: "We want to provide wraparound services . . . services [homeless people] need to integrate back into the workforce." No one would disagree with that as a goal, but there doesn't seem to be a clear notion of what works to achieve the goal.          


  1. The Register Star story states: "The executive session also involved discussions relating to public policy about how the board wants to conduct its homeless services." This despite two recent contracted studies on homelesness in Columbia County aimed at eliminating the problem followed by two proposals which the Board doesn't support.

    The real problem is the lack of leadership and, therefore, policy direction regarding family and single homelessness in Columbia County. When Hughes states he wants the hired agency to give the homeless “the tools they need to enter the workforce” one has to wonder if he has read the HMIS data showing that the majority of homeless people in Columbia County haven't completed school. Plus, job growth in the County is just about nil. If homeless people find work it will no doubt be a menial job with low pay and with no benefits and they will be living on the economic margins. They will need subsidized housing in order to stay out of homelessness. In point of fact, homelessness dropped in Columbia County in December because more subsidized housing became available. According to the Register Star article "The commissioner said he is looking for comprehensive-based, intensive case management support services for the homeless, to help move them into permanent housing. He said he wants the agencies to supply transportation, education referrals, mental health counseling, alcohol/substance abuse counseling and employment training services. He said such support was necessary to keep the homeless from “becoming homeless again.” I'm happy the Commissioner has permanent housing as a goal but the hardest apple to reach is permanent subsidized housing and that is why length of stays in transitional housing are so long. What is the County doing to increase its capacity to supply permanent subsidized housing?

    Again, look at the HMIS data for Columbia County. Where do most homeless come from? Hudson. Why are they homeless? Many were living doubled up and had to leave due to overcrowding. Many were in unsubsidized housing and couldn't afford the rent. Families had it hardest. Are all the homeless mentally ill alcoholic drug abusers? No. Yet, Mossman wants intensive case management which is usually aimed at the seriously mentally ill. How many of the homeless in Columbia County have an unmanaged (as in not taking their meds and seeing their case manager) serious mental illness that has driven them into homelessness? How many homeless just need a job and subsidized housing and no wrap around services? How many homeless singles leave the County altogether? What percentage of people with vouchers actually find subsidized housing in Columbia County? How many homeless/formerly homeless people have completed job training/education programs in Columbia County and how many of those were placed in jobs and what have been the outcomes three months out, six months, a year? Mossman claims that without wrap around intensive case management services the homeless will become homeless again. Since none of those services are apparently available in the County to the homeless at this time what percentage of the 27 single homeless are repeaters in the 12 months, 24 months, 36 months? And how many are seriously mentally ill?


  2. Thank you Kate Stone, wherever you are. Your critiques are always refreshingly sensible.

    Of course I'm sure you've correctly guessed the answer to one rhetorical question, which is that barely anyone actually reads anything around here, not the public and not the politicians.

    Even when specific laws are being voted on, folks just wing it and everyone seems to understand.

    Please keep commenting!

  3. Thank you, unheimlich. I have had ties to Columbia County for 30 years. My love of the area and long affection for Hudson combined with deep public and private local, state and national experience in homelessness and alcohol and drug addiction while leading national studies on homelessness and co-occurring disorders lead me to comment here and I will continue to do so as long as Carole maintains this wonderful venue for issues related to Hudson. Having said that I also have an appreciation for what funding cuts mean to NYS Counties and what it means to be a rural County fighting with NYC, LI, and Westchester for shrinking dollars. I know how a NYS state funder can suddenly shift money out from underneath a County funded program and put it in another County. I know the overreach of state agencies in local affairs. Nonetheless, in the face of shrinking public and private resources I would expect a more realistic, tight, innovative approach to homelessness in Columbia County than I am hearing about. But it is the same old same old expensive three tier wrap around service approach whether homeless people need it or not. It seems that Columbia County will play an unintended role in the persistence of homelessness there if they go this expensive route. Refocus, rethink. Select and target the chronically homeless, a small percentage of the homeless. Seek to expand permanent supportive housing as a strategy and target highly selected populations of the homeless for the housing coupled with a push to provide streamlined Medicaid services to supportive housing providers. This is a thoughtful long term strategy not a quick short term fix.

  4. Ms Stone,
    I second ,what unhiemlich has to say
    You are by far the most knowledgeable voice we in Hudson/Columbia county have heard.
    I wish you were in office here.
    When our elected officials discuss anything it is behind closed doors even
    in front of the press.
    God knows what goes on ,
    that we do not know outside of meetings
    This is a very corrupt county historically
    It's actually more corrupt than NYC,
    because it's so small.
    You are never facing an AGENCY ,
    you are facing individuals with ties and alliance's
    that go back generations.
    You can easily put your home or business at risk ,
    by crossing some of these people,
    by voicing lawful objections ,
    that in NYC,you would not think twice.
    You know you're rights there and so do they
    And there is more than one newspaper.
    Without Gossips of Rivertown,
    we would be at a much greater disadvantage.
    Carole has a way of holding Officials feet to the fire,
    with a graceful slight of hand.
    They pay attention to her presence.
    We are fortunate.

    This whole subject of homelessness,
    requires a p.c.preamble,
    to even discuss it or
    NIMBY or the callousness to the less fortunate,ie homeless
    if you question Offcials

    What homeless means to me being from NYC
    and what it means up here is different only in numbers.
    Homeless is homeless.

    I am God smacked,that all this time and money the BOS ,DSS ,ETC.
    has wasted on Study after study ,meetings etc.

    That money alone,could take care of this problem, here.
    Its our money.
    I am cash poor from medical insurance, school& property tax,
    water and sewage ,utilities
    and we pay for garbage and our fire dept is volunteer.
    Our Police Dept, takes a major amount of our taxes and are a non entity in the poorer wards
    The school taxes are off the map
    and yet we have one of the worst education systems in NYS.
    There is no public library
    no jobs or standard services
    ie laundromat or supermarket,
    and the worst excuse for public transportation,
    (runs once an hr and ends at 2pm.
    and skips an hr for lunch,shows up
    when it feels like it.)

    Taxi's are few,expensive and unreliable
    -which is needed to get to any supermarket,if you don't drive.
    So unless,the homeless person is living in their car,
    they will be as stuck as I am.

    so the county pays for cabs..

    This could not be a worse place to house the homeless
    to get them back into society.It's unaffordable and inaccessible.

    They can only aspire to be put on welfare roll,

    that is it and get subsidsed housing paid by DSS
    And even then since there are no services or hope of employment,
    the welfare money they receive will not go far.
    Ironically the ideal central location for services and possible employment is 5th Ward
    ,where most of the City and civil servants live, that work in Hudson.
    So that is just hands off.

  5. 27 people?There would be excess of 27 people
    in cardboard boxes sleeping around the church
    on 5th Ave. and 55th street.
    In 1989 ,I had an accountant for HRA,say to me he figured out ,he could save the taxpayers over 2 mill.$
    by cutting a check to every homeless person in NYC for $36,000
    and say OK,you're on your own and firing 3/4 of useless civil service
    management that all this Federal cash had created.
    the allocated monies for the "least of us"
    was never making it to them.

    This of course is no answer,because we are not proverbially
    teaching anyone to fish,so they will be right back for more

    In Hudson ,all but a handful,will have to be imported.
    A "If you build it they will come" situation.

    Thats what happened in NYC.
    Other cities,even Countries got rid of their "indigent",
    with a one way ticket to NYC
    and an appt. at HRA
    Hudson is 2.2sq miles, county seat or not.WE have enough problems here as it stands % pop. wise.
    To think bringing more people in
    that really need help,
    will benefit by being in Hudson,is ludicrous
    Theywon't be moved to Galloway's $2,500 a month house on Union ST
    that's for rent in an affluent "historic and pretty area",
    that pay the lions share of taxes.
    the district where his own mansion is,
    Galloway can make that much per head,
    by housing that same homeless person
    (as long as he qualifies in his highest payoff criteria-single,
    mentally ill and or /chemically dependent and or AIDS/HIV
    genre permanently homeless, in a SRO,shared kitchen&bath,
    on the poor side of town,where he wants to build at this point,
    over 70 units in 2 locations some 4 blocks apart.,
    in the neighborhoods that are struggling the most.
    He then expects DSS to provide all other services.
    He will collect rent. make money with
    our tax dollars, and tax credits to do it.He's very very good at it.
    None of it will come out of his pocket
    I wouldn't move a recovering
    addict next door to a crack den and pay for it,thinking
    I"m helping.
    This is what they are suggesting.
    Not only will these people not be brought up to a better standard of living in
    this situation,it will bring our existing one even
    further down
    Its a lose ,lose for everyone,
    but Galloway.

  6. I'm not usually a fan of blogs other than posting on my own which I haven't done in a while, but I was directed to view the comments on this particular blog.

    For the record my comments weren't fully quoted. I'm not going to be critical of Kate Stone, but I am going to clarify some facts being put out there.

    First, I would say, YES, I do read the studies we get, and know well that some of those who are homeless in Col. Co. do not have diplomas, but I would like to point out that we also have some with mental illness issues and criminal records that make it hard for them to find employment. I would also like to point out that we also have a population that is able to work but lack the skills in some cases to work in some jobs that may be available now. To the point of someone working and making a menial salary, for everyone who works, that is one less person we have to give full subsidies too, meaning food stamps, housing, shelter allowance. I agree that is not the optimum, but we all have a good idea of how to make yourself gainfully employable, that's through education.

    Why we have a drop in homelessness over the last few months? Yes, we do have some doubling up, which I will address in a minute, but the main reason is, NYS increased the Shelter rent allowance to nearly $500 a month. With that being said, those who lived in hotels were encouraged to move in with another person who is also homeless. As a result, we now have many pairing up with virtual strangers and moving into apartments that in my opinion are substandard. This has resulted in an increase of Police calls to some of these apartments I am talking about. We shouldn't expect anything different, we have people living together with a multitude of issues and no form of service what so ever. Yes, our numbers have dropped at who's expense?

    To those doubled up in apartments, I have been preaching this point to other City of Hudson elected officials as a reason why we need more affordable housing in Hudson. Yet, some of the comments I get back is why should Hudson be the ones to take on more housing. To that my answer is, the people being priced out lived in Hudson before that, so why not allow more affordable housing to be built so they can come back?

    On the County's strategy, the County is NOT promoting the 3 tier strategy. Actually, we recognize not all who is homeless needs counselling. If one would look at the MHA plans, it had a tier 1 phase which would insist clients receive wrap around service, but it also has a phase 2 component that would provide studio style apartments that would not require wrap around service.

    There is a handful of us on the BOS who didn't believe going through an RFP process for these services was the best idea. As was pointed out addressing our homeless population is a challenge, but we must start somewhere and we are searching for that starting point. Hopefully we will be able to save money, provide wrap around service to those who need it and also provide a safe environment for those who are just trying to find their way.

    Some of the ideas Kate Stone mention in the end of her comments are great and not unheard of. What needs to be stated is, most of that innovative streamlining needs to take place at the State level, not the County level. Now the State has told Counties that they intend to take over the medicaid division, which could pose more problems. The State has already taken over the medicaid transportation division and we are told the rest is going too.

    I agree, we may not have all the answers, but we cannot continue to use hotels as warehouses, without giving clients any form of services except the basic DSS visit.

    Criticize as you may, I'm trying to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

  7. Thank you, Mr. Hughes, for responding to my posts. My criticism is meant to prod, nothing more than that. I am happy to see that the County does not intend to go the expensive three tier route. That was not apparent in all I have read until you rejected it here. Doubling up is a problem and it shows up in the Columbia County HMIS stats as one of the key reasons people seek shelter along with those who can no longer afford their rent. You know that sheltering people costs a great deal of money whether in motels or a dedicated shelter. And transitional housing provides housing and services to very few people at great cost. Costs have soared because shelters are being run as much more than an emergency stop for singles and families. As you know, one of the ways HUD defines homelessness is "doubled up" and having to leave that level of housing in 14 days. Since millions live doubled up and never seek shelter I have a hard time agreeing with that definition. Nonetheless, it is one definition of homelessness and it is why many people in Columbia County seek emergency assistance. Innovative homeless prevention programs are the key here. And the often laborious but necessary push for increased affordable housing for all who need it. If I had my way I would do a pilot program which restricted emergency shelter to the chronically homeless, victims of domestic violence, and people burnt out of their homes/apartments. Length of stay would be short, case management would be heavy. I would couple this with a study on what pressures, if any, those restrictions put on other systems -- homeless prevention services, criminal justice, health -- expecially ERs and detox (a level of care most do not need but a money maker for hospitals that have them), VA, nonprofits, etc. But I don't have my way. Again, thanks for the response to my posts.

    To Prison Alley: the idea of giving the homeless a check and letting them go find their own housing was seriously floated in places like Portland and Seattle by advocates for the homeless. It went nowhere for two reasons: institutions have been built around homelessness and cutting checks to the homeless would throw people out of work unless they were check cutters, and second, the belief that giving poor people a "hand out" of money supports drug addiction and alcoholism is strong, however fallacious.