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June 8, 2006

Letter from Tom McPheeters, regarding the importation of homeless people into the South End of Albany.


I have delayed replying to your email and blog regarding homeless people and the City Mission because I think it is important to have as many facts at hand as possible. Nevertheless, I hope you will publish this additional information as widely as possible before Wednesday evening, since your comments have had the unfortunate effect of adding gasoline to the smoldering embers of a controversy I had assumed was long dead.

The canard that Albany’s homelessness problem stems in large part from imports from other cities, and most especially from New York City, has been with us for as long as I have been involved in this issue, which goes back to the early 1990s. Much longer, I suspect, but as our homeless population continues to increase it becomes less and less credible. Yet, it remains a convenient excuse for the politicians and bureaucrats to avoid taking the steps that are necessary to truly address the problem. It is unfortunate that Lucille McKnight, who served for many years as chair of the Albany County Legislature’s Social Services Committee, continues to focus on this issue rather than the causes of homelessness.

One clue to the true nature of this problem is that by far the fastest growing Albany homeless population in the last three years is families with children. And these families are staying in shelters or motels (yes, motels!), for more than double the length of stay just three years ago. The reason is relatively straightforward (if anything relating to homelessness can be called straightforward) — they are stuck in shelters and motels because they can’t find any place to live! The county wants nothing more than to get these people out of the shelter system, which is very expensive, but the case managers can’t move them out any faster than apartments become available. It follows that the decrease in affordable housing in Albany is a major cause of new episodes of homelessness among families. I don’t need to go into all the reasons for that (obviously, it’s a landlord’s market), but one new factor, ironically, appears to be more aggressive code enforcement under Nick DiLello’s administration.

But you are concerned about homeless men — where do they come from? One interesting fact is that the number of homeless individuals going through Homeless and Travelers Aid (HATAS) has fallen quite dramatically in the last several years — from 2419 in 2003 to 1896 last year. This was after a very sharp increase in the previous years. Of the individuals who were homeless in Albany last year, four percent came from New York City, three percent came from Rensselaer County, three percent from Schenectady County, and a half of one percent from Saratoga County. Nine percent came from out of state, and seven percent from other New York State counties. (HATAS does not keep statistics of people who come to Albany from other parts of the county, but it does not appear to be a large number.)

“Like other Capital District residents, low-income people move around from county to county,” says Ira Mandelker, director of HATAS. “Many of the out-of-county homeless people have close ties to our city or county, despite the fact that they may have most recently lived in Rensselaer or Schenectady.”

It also seems likely that people who move here from out of state, or from Buffalo or Rochester, are more likely to be coming because of some previous connection or family ties, rather than some unfounded idea that the grass is greener here.

And despite the drop in new cases of homeless individuals last year, the number of individuals HATAS referred to the Mission actually increased by 29 percent over the year before, and it continues to climb this year. Mandelker notes that “the fact that we have to refer more men to [the Mission], when the number of new episodes were dropping, suggests that people are staying in the county shelters longer than before.”

Again, we’re created a situation where people have no place to go, and then we blame the shelters.

Next, let’s consider the “Greyhound effect.” Certainly it does happen, but nowhere near as much as it used to, say 20 years ago. Now, all of the surrounding counties have their own shelters and their own policies in place, and Albany County Department of Social Services has become super vigilant on the issue. The law says the county of origin has to take financial responsibility for someone moving here, so when it is detected it is quickly squelched.

“If Saratoga County's DSS, for example, "Greyhound referred" a homeless person to HATAS,” says Mandelker, “the ticket creates a paper trail that could be traced, and I am sure ACDSS would react strongly once we let them know it happened.”

Finally, it should be noted that there are two Albany shelters that accept some homeless people without direct referrals from HATAS — the City Mission and the seasonal Overflow Shelter at First Lutheran Church, run by the Council of Churches. These shelters receive no taxpayer reimbursement for these walk-ins, but both do their own screening both for the safety of their residents and out of concern for their neighbors.

I can personally attest to the care given to this issue by the Overflow Shelter at First Lutheran, which had significant local opposition when it started but virtually none now. And I know that Perry Jones is constantly on the alert for incidents that would affect the community around the Mission. When we had a “rape” in the Mansion Neighborhood last year that lead to the arrest of a Mission resident, Perry investigated and made sure that individual left the area. (The facts of that incident turned out to be somewhat different than originally reported, and the accused man was never brought to trial.)

Homeless people are an easy target, and so are the organizations that serve them. I can only hope that people take the time to look past the myths of homelessness to the reality of this very complex issue.

Tom McPheeters



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