Everybody Counts: Winter Hazards for the Homeless

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Contributing Writer
Walt Pickut

Every 10 years since 1790 Americans have been required to count noses… it’s called the U.S. Census. America’s 23rd census arrives in 2020. In part, it will determine how a half-trillion dollars in federal spending on infrastructure and services will be distributed annually over the next decade.

One of the hard questions is, “Who counts?”

A Big “Small” Problem

Federal law requires everyone be counted. Unfortunately, some of us are hard to count. In 2017, more than 550,000 Americans were homeless. Greater Jamestown and Chautauqua County have their own share of that unfortunate statistic.

According to the Homeless Management Information System for Chautauqua County, the present decade began with 303 homeless families in the county (70 % in Jamestown and Dunkirk), 125 of which included dependent children. Approximately 70 of the homeless were veterans and disabled individuals.

By 2017, however, the numbers appear to have increased, with 783 households receiving homeless services in 2017 alone, and 844 in the first 6 months of 2018.

For the official U.S. HHS definition of homelessness, please see the statement at the end of this article.

The numbers may appear small, compared to nearly 53,000 households in Chautauqua County, but the problem is not, according to the office of the mayor in Jamestown, NY. “The City of Jamestown is proud to be at the table alongside the Chautauqua County Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in applying whatever resources we can, including the most accurate census data possible, to solving the problems of homelessness in our city,” Matt Hanley, assistant to the mayor, told the Jamestown Gazette last week.

Closer to Home

According to market watchers, nearly two out of every three Americans currently have no significant emergency savings and most are as little as one paycheck away from the street. 

According to Jeff Rotunda, program director at Jamestown’s UCAN (United Christian Advocacy Network) Mission, “Anyone can be in this situation. It is a mistake to blame all homeless for their troubles. There is no single cause and there is no ‘one-stop-fix.’”

While homelessness is not seasonal, the coming winter season is expected to create greater stresses on the homeless within the community. About 3 years ago, New York Governor Cuomo signed an executive order that would declare a “Code Blue” condition when the mercury dips below 32 degrees requiring that the homeless be sheltered. A Code Blue alert opens additional short-term, emergency shelter and “Warming Station” opportunities for the homeless.

Grass Roots First

Grass roots efforts like “Keeping Each Other Warm in Jamestown,” (see their Facebook page) – now with more than 1,500 Likes in its 4th year – represent individual people in the community caring for the homeless and poor among the population. Random clotheslines across the city invite anyone with spare hats or gloves or boots or a coat and scarf to hang it up, free for the taking by anyone else who needs it.

With such strong grass roots support, the other community organizations are making their needs better known to the public at this time to help the homeless, not only in the coming winter season, but all year long. 

A Strong Coalition

The Chautauqua County Homeless Coalition, spearheaded by Chautauqua Opportunities,Inc. (COI), under the umbrella of the County HHS, “…is a comprehensive network of diverse organizations that addresses the needs of, and provides intervention and prevention services for, the homeless and those at risk of homelessness.”

Please see the personal note below from Josiah Lamp, Chairperson, representing Chautauqua County Homeless Coalition, Jamestown, NY.

Fifteen agencies comprise the coalition, including Chautauqua Opportunities, UCAN, YWCA, the Salvation Army, St. Susan Center, Southern Tier Environment for Living (STEL), and a new initiative now under development in Jamestown, the Gateway Lofts Project. Local governments, police and county sheriff’s departments also play significant roles.

The coalition’s 2017 “Emergency Measures for the Homeless During Inclement Winter Weather” policy is available on the Chautauqua Opportunities website (check for updates if applying): www.chautauquaopportunities.com.

The First Stop

“Some of the people who come through our doors at UCAN are at the lowest point in their lives, broken and lost,” Rotunda said. “We help them see a way to grow and heal, return to work, family and relationships. That is always exciting to see.” He added, however, that everyone’s situation deserves its own, individual plan.

From Danger to Safety

Sometimes the street is safer than home due to violence, drug or alcohol abuse, criminal behavior or other factors making the street the only escape. The Salvation Army operates the Anew Center for women fleeing abuse, rape and violence, and COI operates a Runaway Homeless Youth Center for teens fleeing violence at home. “Community support is needed at all times,” Diana Butcher, domestic violence shelter manager at Anew explained. “We help 125 to 220 women every year with a safe place to start over from.”

From Street to Home

Among the agencies which help homeless women, alone and with families, navigate back to a home, the Jamestown YWCA is a leader. “The YWCA has been home to a successful Transitional Housing program for more than 30 years,” explained Jacqueline Chiarot Phelps, the Y’s executive director. “By providing stable housing and support services to women and children our goal is to give people a hand up to break the cycle of poverty so they, and their families, thrive for generations to come.”

Food for Body and Soul

St. Susan Center is on target this year to serve 120,000 free meals to guests financially unable to afford adequate nutrition. “Only about 5 percent of our meals go to the homeless,” St Susan’s administrative coordinator, Katie Murdock, explained. “But we can usually tell who they are because they are carrying everything they own on their backs when they come in.” St. Susan also delivers hot dinners to UCAN every night for the homeless sheltering there.

Staying Warm

Regardless of the role each of these organization plays in the cycle of safety and rehabilitation for the homeless, most also serve as “Warming Shelters” in the event of a Code Blue, where individuals can escape temporarily to safety indoors, with the usual occupancy limits relaxed during crisis weather conditions.

Code Blue also allows HHS to provide emergency hotel vouchers for short-term winter shelter. Gina Ward, associate director at Jamestown’s STEL, reported that the HHS mandated “Point-in-time” one-night homeless count this year, conducted by the Homeless Coalition on the night of January 25, 2018, found only three individuals sleeping “on the street,” under a train trestle or the like, but 66 who sheltered indoors. “We know there are more, but the homeless can be hard to find,” Ward said. That makes helping them more difficult.

Learn More

The Jamestown Gazette urges our readers to visit the websites of the organizations noted here and consider supporting them in any way possible. Whether it is on a clothesline stretched between parking meters this winter or a warm pair of socks dropped off at St. Susan Center or UCAN or the Salvation Army, every kind of support is a hand up, not a hand out. Homelessness is a curable condition when neighbors care for neighbors.

Who is Homeless?

There is more than one official definition of homelessness. Health centers funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) use the following:

A homeless individual is defined in section 330 of the Public Health Service Act, (42 U.S.C., 254b), (h)(5)(A) as “…an individual who lacks housing (without regard to whether the individual is a member of a family), including an individual whose primary residence during the night is a supervised public or private facility (e.g., shelters) that provides temporary living accommodations, and an individual who is a resident in transitional housing… A homeless person is an individual without permanent housing who may live on the streets; stay in a shelter, mission, single room occupancy facilities, abandoned building or vehicle; or in any other unstable or non-permanent situation.” A common, more derogatory term is also often applied, “couch surfing with friends and family.” Homelessness is never easy.

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Walt Pickut
Walt Pickut’s writing career began with publishing medical research in1971 while working at the Jersey City Medical Center and the NYU Hospital and School of Medicine. Walt holds board registries in respiratory care and sleep technology as well as bachelor's degrees in biology and communication, and a master's degrees in physiology from Fairleigh-Dickinson University in New Jersey, with additional graduate work in mass communication completed at SUNY Amherst. He currently teaches Presentational Speaking in the Houghton College PACE program at JCC and holds memberships in the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Society of Business Publication Editors. He lives in Jamestown with his wife Nancy, an MSW social worker, and has three children: Dr. Cait Lamberton in Pittsburgh, Bill Pickut, a marketing executive in Chicago, and Rev. Matt Pickut in Plymouth, IN.