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January 27, 2014

Area homeless woman: We're doing our best

By Jessica Reynolds Staff writer
The Daily Star

---- — Jerri Jordan, an occupant of Opportunity House, said she wishes the community knew that homeless people are not all “slackers.”

Jordan, 56, is one of 18 residents at the Oneonta homeless shelter, run by Opportunities for Otsego. Jordan said she has been at the house for a month and a half and is busy looking for jobs in the Bassett Healthcare Network in her background, medical billing. She said she already has an apartment lined up for when she gets a job.

Daniel Maskin, chief executive officer of Opportunities for Otsego, said more than 233 homeless adults and children were provided shelter through OFO programs from October 2012 to September 2013. However, Maskin said, there are even more homeless individuals and families in Otsego County who do not seek help through these programs.

Tony Longo, a retired emergency housing associate for Oneonta’s Opportunity House, said the problem of homelessness in Otsego County is fluid, constantly shifting and changing. Longo said it is difficult to nail down how many homeless people are in the county because, he said, they are somewhat “invisible.”

Longo said many people are unaware of the scope of homelessness in the area and that many people are content with their ignorance.

“People don’t want to know about it,” Longo said. “America is a generous nation, and so people want to just donate money and say ‘here ... fix it.’”

In his eight years working the night shift and weekends at the homeless shelter, Longo said, he has gotten to know many different homeless individuals, who generally fall into one of two categories.

“These are the two types of people that come in,” Longo said. “There’s the welfare queen who’s on drugs and has five kids who’ve all been taken away from her. Some people are good at working the system … we call them ‘chronics.’ Then, there’s the mother of five kids whose husband is in prison. She has a job and does her best to take care of her kids emotionally and physically, but she’s just run into a hard time.”

People generally focus on the first type, which is only a small percentage of homeless people in the area, Longo said.

Longo said it would be hard for the average person to differentiate a homeless person from anyone else on the street. After retiring from the Opportunity House, Longo said, he frequently sees former occupants out and about, and they recognize him and say hello.

Longo said one man, who was living in a tent by the railroad tracks near Chestnut Street, contacted him to let him know how he was doing.

“He said he was burning a candle in his tent one night and his sleeping bag and tent caught on fire. He literally saw the light because of that. He said, ‘Tony, I’m going back to my family and get straightened around.’”

Longo said he knows of one homeless man who sleeps under one of the bridges in Oneonta. During the summer, he said, some homeless people sleep in cemeteries or near the railroad tracks. Some, Longo said, go south for the winter.

Longo said, of the dozens of homeless people in Oneonta, many are invisible to the public because they choose to “couch-surf,” rather than stay outside.

“They’ll most often stay at friends’ houses,” Longo said.

Lynn Glueckert, executive director of Catholic Charities of Delaware and Otsego counties, said half of the homeless individuals that come into her office are “couch-surfers” and half stay outside. During winter, she said, they sometimes stay at Walmart because it’s open 24 hours a day. Through Catholic Charities, Glueckert said, individuals can get coats and other winter items, bus passes to social services and referrals to local feeding and housing programs.

Longo said another “invisible” group of homeless people is the rural poor. He said homeless people in the city of Oneonta are very different from those who live outside the city.

“The rural poor – the country boys – they have a certain pride,” Longo said. “They won’t accept help. I know one gentleman who lives rough all year, but doesn’t want to go into the system.”

For those that do want help, Longo said, the Opportunity House is a “very nice” facility. He said occupants get a roof over their heads and food, and are put in touch with local agencies that can further help them.

Maureen Hennessy, emergency housing supervisor at Opportunity House, said the facility is currently full and has been for the last six months. Hennessy said the staff at Opportunity House works with occupants to get them referred to other services, help them achieve their goals, and find jobs and inexpensive housing.

Opportunities for Otsego’s housing and employment manager, Liane Hirabayashi, said the most common reason people end up at the homeless shelter is that they cannot afford to pay rent or have been evicted. She said it is difficult for them to find affordable housing in the city of Oneonta.

Hirabayashi said the 18-bed facility offers two family rooms, two single rooms, four double rooms, a communal kitchen, a laundry room, a food pantry and several common rooms. She said occupants also have full access to a computer, where they can search for jobs or apartments.

“One man who was staying here was taking an online class on the computer,” Hirabayashi said.

Hirabayashi said single men and women, couples and families are welcome to stay at the shelter, as long as they meet the eligibility requirements. She said sex offenders, individuals with a violent criminal history or people who are actively using drugs without seeking help cannot be placed in the Opportunity House. Hirabayashi said individuals who do not meet these requirements can be housed in local motels through the Department of Social Services or referred to another housing service association.

“Opportunity House is not a true drop-in shelter because we have to do a background check on people before they can stay here,” Hirabayashi said. “They can come directly here to inquire about staying or call the hotline at 433-8318.”

Hirabayashi said the shelter averaged 81 percent occupancy in 2013, partly because there were some big families, who took up more beds. She said 64 households have been sheltered in the past calendar year, with 42 single individuals, eight single-parent families, six couples without children, eight 2-parent households and 23 children.

Jordan said she ended up at Opportunity House after her daughter, a single mother of three girls, became overwhelmed and was evicted. Jordan said her daughter began living with a friend, and Jordan became ill. Her daughter decided she could not take care of Jordan anymore and, after some time in the hospital, Jordan went to Opportunity House.

“It was a godsend,” Jordan said. “It’s clean, I feel safe, the residents help each other, and the staff is very helpful. They really care about us. It’s the little things they do.”

Jordan said she used to live in Albany and work at WellPoint, a large health benefits company and parent firm of Blue Cross. But many employees lost their jobs, Jordan said, when the company shifted its home base. Jordan said she received unemployment while raising her three children.

The residents at Opportunity House are close, Jordan said, helping each other find jobs, sharing personal stories and championing each other.

“We talk about everything,” Jordan said. “I cooked Christmas dinner for the residents.”

Father Kenneth Hunter, reverend at the St. James’ Episcopal Church, said The Lord’s Table serves between 60 and 70 low-income individuals each week night. He said the majority of homeless individuals that come in are staying with friends, staying at different places each night, although he does occasionally see people sleeping outside the building, he said.

Longo said the support system provided for homeless people is “like a bed of nails.”

“The food, clothing and housing services are great, but the government buries them in paperwork, rules and regulations. It can be compared to a mom and dad who have a trouble child, with the mom being services and the dad being the government. The dad says ‘enough is enough, we have to throw the kid out,’ but the mom says ‘but we have to help him!’ This keeps the system going.”

Although it is possible to work the system, Longo said, only a small percentage of homeless individuals in the Oneonta area are “chronics,” as he called them. He said people need to focus on the group of homeless trying to pull themselves out of the War on Poverty, which he said has become more of an occupation than a war.

Jordan echoed this sentiment, saying only some homeless people are satisfied with the status quo and just having a roof over their head. Not at Opportunity House though, she said.

Jordan said there’s a couple living at the shelter with their 3-year-old, who has a terminal illness. They both work, she said, but sometimes get overwhelmed with their situation. They are traveling to Manhattan soon to get treatment for their son.

The woman with whom Jordan shares a room has medical issues, but is the single parent of a 4-month-old baby girl, who Jordan called “the cutest little thing.”

“People here want more for themselves and their families,” Jordan said. “They have incentive. We’re on a mission to get back up on our feet so we don’t end up in this position again.”

233 Number of homeless adults and children who were provided shelter through OFO programs from October 2012 to September 2013.