Walter W. Pickut
By all accounts, the recent holiday season was a good one for almost everybody, at least if spending is any measure.
Americans spent nearly $960 billion on holiday gift-giving alone in 2022, according to the National Retail Federation. And that doesn’t even count travel, entertainment, and holiday feasts. Western New York and Northwestern Pennsylvania happily reported their own fair share of those statistics. This, however, is not the whole picture.
The Rest of the Story
Paradoxically, in Chautauqua County alone, 1,487 citizens were counted as homeless and at risk of homelessness in 2022, with the confirmed homeless tallying 661—nearly half of them single adults and nearly two-thirds female—as reported by Josiah Lamp, Director of Housing and Community Development at Chautauqua Opportunities, Inc.
The reasons for—and rescue from—homelessness, however are not a case of “one size fits all,” Amanda Gesing, Executive Director of Jamestown’s YWCA, told the Gazette recently. Job loss, death of a family wage-earner, for example, or unsafe living conditions, and the recent end to the moratorium on evictions of the unemployed, along with mental health and disabilities lead the list of causes, many of which are beyond any individual’s control.
Homeless, however, rarely comes alone. It also creates an environment in which other problems of exploitation, abuse, and even human trafficking can arise. The homeless often suffer consequences beyond their control or blame.
The undeserved stigma attached to homelessness, however, can be lethal for the homeless as colder winter weather approaches. Fortunately, many well-meaning local citizens and community organizations are making a mark in their efforts to help. Many of us, however, are unsure how.
“We started seeing people pitching tents in various areas on cold nights, and unfortunately we did not have the capacity to handle the crisis,” Jamestown’s Mayor Sundquist explains.
“As a city we needed to bring together our resources in order to ensure that individuals have the basic needs for the cold, overnight temperatures this winter.” He responded by bringing together faith-based groups, the homeless providers, and healthcare providers to create an emergency sheltering capacity.
A key part of that initiative is the opening of Code Blue shelters providing emergency refuge. A Code Blue is signaled any time the overnight, outdoor temperature drops below freezing, 32 degrees Fahrenheit.
As a result, two Cold Blue Shelters are now open, one at Joy Fellowship Church on 7th St. in Jamestown with a capacity of 8 to 10 beds, and another at the Mental Health Association in conjunction with Community Helping Hands at the Gateway Center on Water St. in Jamestown with a capacity of 20 beds.
Opening of these shelters was facilitated by a HUD grant of $194,000 along with funding by Chautauqua County and New York State, all of which Sundquist brought together expressly for the purpose.
A Cold Walk Home
Amanda Gesing at the “Y” invites everyone who would like to join in supporting the YWCA Transitions Supportive Housing Program, designed to help homeless women move toward safe, affordable housing… to just take a walk!
It is called the “Coldest Night of the Year Walk.” On February 25 YWCA will partner with similar agencies across the United States, all walking at the same time, to raise awareness about homelessness and hunger. Walkers, individually or in teams, will pledge to raise $20,000 for the project by February 25 on either one of a 3K or 5K walk through downtown Jamestown and along Riverwalk.
Amanda also invited non-walkers to join in as volunteers at the warming stations, or to stand in locations to direct people along the route, or at the check-in station or warming stations along the way serving coffee, hot chocolate, snacks, and the walk-ending meal of hot soup.
“Individuals who come to the YWCA,” Amanda said, “have no place else to go, so they are classified as homeless. Homelessness is not new to the area. It may be more visible right now but it’s always been a concern here. It’s going to take a while to solve the problem, but we can do it.
It Gets Personal
“Winter often makes people much more compassionate,” Aaron Wadin, the new executive director at UCAN, Jamestown’s United Christian Advocacy Network, said. “People want to help us open the door to a heated home for the homeless at the Mission.”
“People often drop off some clothes, or some cookies, or food, which we can make great use of,” Aaron explained thankfull, “but I think an even better thing might be to just come down here. Stay for an hour, meet the men, go play chess with somebody, or just come in and spend some time here chatting, getting to know somebody.”
“It is more about a relationship than stopping by and dropping off some clothes today. Come grab a meal with us,” he invites Gazette readers, “have a conversation with some of these guys, break bread together.” Homelessness hurts and homeless men need friends to heal.
“We would welcome anyone from the community to hang out for an hour. That is going to have an impact. The best help is more relational. Stop looking away, and looked towards them.”
“After all,” Aaron says with the clear light of his calling in his eye, “we’re all really homeless, aren’t we? Until we get to Heaven. So, let’s all help our brothers right here. UCAN offers so much more than a warm bed and a hot meal—it’s food for the hurting soul as well as the body.”
Josiah Lamp at COI added that for organizations on the front lines, it’s very difficult work helping people in crisis. People can help by asking how to support those organizations “so that we can all work together to try to find solutions.”
A Deeper Need
More than 200 of the region’s homeless are children, according to COI’s Josiah Lamp, also serving as chairperson of the Chautauqua County Homeless Coalition, and many of them are homeless runaway youth (age 17 and under), an especially vulnerable population.
Sadly, research has shown that if a child is unaccompanied on the streets, within 48 hours there will be a proposition for commercial sex, according to Kayleah Feser, Safe Harbor Director at the Child Advocacy Program (CAP) in Chautauqua County. “The youngest age we worked with was four years old,” she said. “The average age for this exploited population is 14 years old.”
Victimization is often compounded by other issues prevalent among the homeless population. This tragic outcome, then, raises the specter of human trafficking, especially among the homeless youth population.
“It is something we are particularly concerned with,” Lamp added. “Young people are vulnerable. We especially reach out to try to educate them so they understand how to seek help, work with law enforcement and with CAP, the lead agency for human trafficking in our county.
A Growing Problem
“Sometimes people have a hard time realizing that something like this is going on in our own community,” Feser said.
“We started tracking this problem with youth with our Safe Harbor Program in 2016,” Feser explained, “and as of the end of 2022 we had identified 231 local young people to be at risk for trafficking or child-sexual exploitation, and 41 of those children meet the federal definition of human trafficking, all based on the children’s own disclosures. Homelessness is a huge gateway to sexual and commercial exploitation of children.”
“Year over year, we are identifying more children referred by a broader and broader scope of professionals and agencies now on the alert,” Feser added. “We then work very hard to create an intervention to stop the abuse.”
COI also utilizes CAP’s screening tools to identify abuse immediately on admitting a young person to their safe housing facilities for prompt referrals to CAP, law enforcement, and all other necessary agencies.
The majority of funding comes from the State of New York, the Office of Children and Family Services, and Chautauqua County Health and Human Services.
A Final Invitation
Mayor Sundquist, reflecting once more on the ongoing threat of more dangerous cold weather ahead, reminds Jamestown Gazette readers that the shelters are looking for volunteers, for help getting individuals get back on their feet.
In particular, he added, providers are now seeing a large influx of homelessness. The providers can use anything people can use to stay warm, like blankets, food, clothing, gloves, hats, all things that can be put into a backpack. And people who care.
We’ve almost all come home from the holidays by now. Let’s help everybody else still on their way find their way home, too.
Chautauqua County Homeless Coalition
- American Red Cross
- Chautauqua County DHHS
- Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Library System
- Chautauqua Opportunites, Inc.
- Chautauqua County Department of Health & Human Services
- Chautauqua County Youth Bureau
- City of Jamestown Dept. of Development
- City of Dunkirk
- Catholic Charities
- Dunkirk Housing Authority
- Erie 2 Chaut./Catt. BOCES
- Evergreen Health Services
- Housing Options Made Easy
- Mental Health Association in Chautauqua County
- NYS DOCCS
- Soldier On
- Southern Tier Environments for Living, Inc.
- The Resource Center
- UCAN City Mission
- United Way of Southern Chautauqua County
- YWCA of Jamestown