By JIMMY LAWTON
More than 220 homeless people in St. Lawrence County visited the Department of Social Services last year because they had no place to stay, according to DSS Commissioner Chris Rediehs.
“For many people it’s surprising that we do have people who are homeless in St. Lawrence County,” Rediehs said. “We do have people, on occasion, who are literally living under a bridge or in a semi-truck trailer. It’s hard to imagine how difficult that is.”
Most of the people who are considered homeless do not have immediate family, but Rediehs estimated as many as 30 families visit the office each year in the same situation.
“The people who come to us are in a particularly challenged group. That generally means they have no place to stay,” he said.
A Hidden Problem
In a county with a population of 111,690, the number of truly homeless isn’t staggering, but Redeihs said the number of homeless is based solely on those who seek help through the Department of Social Services and does not represent true number of homeless.
He said the number of people living in a substandard, inadequate or temporary living situation is likely greater and more common. Examples of such conditions include living in a trailer without power, a house without running water or an overcrowded home with family or friends that don’t have the space or income to support the extra bodies.
Rediehs said those numbers can be hard to track, since many people in that type of situation don’t seek help, and those who do may seek it in different places.
Unlike more populated areas, St. Lawrence County does not have a homeless shelter, but Rediehs said this does not mean, there isn’t a support system for the displaced to turn to. Rediehs said the American Red Cross and Salvation Army often address emergency situations, but more long-term help can be found through other organizations.
Independent Living Center
The Massena Independent Living Center may be the widest reaching resource for families or individuals in need of shelter in St. Lawrence County. Funded through government grants and fundraising, the organization has programs designed specifically to assist people without homes.
The center has been awarded two homeless prevention and rapid re-housing programs for St. Lawrence County.
These programs have determined that it is much more cost-effective to prevent homelessness than to let situations get to their worst before being able to provide assistance.
With eligibility and income requirements in place, in 2011 the Massena Independent Living Center’s HEARTH program assisted 88 literally homeless individuals (people sleeping in a place not meant for human habitation), and 533 individuals who were at risk of becoming homeless within the next two weeks, according to Katy VanAnden who tracks homelessness throughout the tri-county area.
Connie Toms is a program manager for the non-profit group. She said the MILC does not offer shelter, but they do offer a rapid re-housing initiative designed to place people in homes as soon as possible.
“When people need help, you have to get them housing first. When they have housing, then they can go out and get that job,” she said.
MILC can help the displaced with security deposits and first month’s rent. It also works with individuals to ensure they can maintain and afford their new living quarters.
“We help with job development. We help people with their resumes. We help them get GEDs. We help with a lot of things,” she said, adding that there is a required follow-up with the program.
Toms said the idea is to get people in homes they can afford, so they don’t wind up back in a similar situation, but caseworkers do not choose where people will live.
“The person can live where they want. We do not actively say ‘here is an apartment you need to get that one,’ but we do require the place to be rent reasonable,” she said.
While some people come in with nothing, Toms said most people seeking assistance have some income. She said MILC ensures everyone who is eligible for assistance programs is signed-up and receiving help.
People receiving assistance are required to complete a plan, which can vary depending on circumstances, but the steps of the plan must be followed in order for assistance to continue.
“The goal is to get them in stable homes they can afford.”
Rediehs said the Massena Independent Living Center, with help from the tri-county initiative Points North Coalition, have been very successful in addressing the homelessness.
“They have been able to access state and federal funding in a way that is not a temporary fix. It has allowed people to move forward,” he said.
St. Lawrence County Community Development is a non-profit organization that oversees the county’s various Neighborhood Centers. Daisy Cox is the director of the Potsdam location.
She said every case of homelessness is different and there isn’t a clear solution for those seeking help. She said neighborhood centers are a valuable resource for homeless families, especially in emergency situations.
Since the county has no homeless shelters, help offered from Neighborhood Centers, could include a two-night stay in a hotel, while the family searches for a home. She said the center can also help with rent in some instances, though the resources are quite limited. She said the centers don’t have the financing to house the homeless for extended periods of time, but will work with other organizations to ensure people are cared for.
The county Community Development Program also has a voucher program, which can provide money for housing for up to 620 families, however Cox said the waiting list for a voucher can be as long as four years. “The wait list is rather extensive,” she said.
She said Massena, Ogdensburg and Potsdam also have housing authorities that can provide similar assistance, but the extent they can help is also limited.
“These places might have a wait list, or they might not,” she said.
Cox said the majority of people in the North Country in these situations rely on friends and family to get back on there feet, but added that this can be strain on relationships and sometimes places people in volatile situations.
“We have had cases where someone is living with their ex-boyfriend and his new girlfriend,” she said. “You can imagine how hard that could be.”
What About the Kids?
The strain isn’t always limited to adults. It is not uncommon for a family with kids in school to fall on hard times. This can lead to students sleeping on couches, floor, or overcrowded rooms for months of years. For these students, each school has a homeless liaison, who identifies these students and helps administer help.
At Potsdam Central School, Guidance Counselor Susan Pike fills this role. She said the school can help these students, by sharing supplies, food and clothes that are donated to the school. She said the students are also prioritized over others in terms of tutoring and extra help. The students also receive free school lunches.
At Potsdam Central, about 14 such students are considered to fit the program’s criteria. She said this is usually because they reside in temporary living situations.
The federal government mandates the assistance provided to students, but the school does not receive reimbursement for expenses.
“Our hands are kind of tied. We do what we can but there isn’t a lot we can do,” she said.
The school does receive some help through a three-year grant obtained by St. Lawrence County and Lewis BOCES that will run out in 2013.
That grant estimated that about 10 percent of students in St. Lawrence County would qualify for help.
“It’s different everywhere and situations change, but we have found that number is pretty accurate,” she said.
Commissioner Redeihs said the homeless problem in St. Lawrence County is real, but there are many organizations dedicated to helping those in need.
He said help exists, but people need to reach out for it.
“I think a lot of people, especially in St. Lawrence County, are very independent and don’t want to ask for help even though they really need,” he said.