Homeless for the Holidays

Dec. 18, 2003
Homeless for the Holidays
By Eileen Jevis/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
“He who has compassion on the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his good deeds.” (Prov 19:17)

The Salvation Army’s Emergency Shelter on Salina Street in Syracuse was a beehive of activity as the residents there prepared for a holiday party. Mothers were busy completing the tasks assigned them while toddlers walked in and out of the common room looking for a snack, a playmate or their mothers. This particular shelter takes only women and children and, like every other shelter in the county, is filled to capacity each night. According to information provided by the Onondaga County Homeless Task Force, there are approximately 700 homeless people in Onondaga County. This is a conservative number and does not include homeless people that may be staying with relatives, friends or in hospitals or in prison.

Joseph Slavik, executive director of Catholic Charities of Broome County, said that of the 3,500 to 3,700 people they serve each month, 45 percent of them are children. “We’ve been on the increase over the past three to four years,” said Slavik. “Our ability to keep up is becoming a strain.” At Oswego County Catholic Charities director Andrea McCabe said much the same thing. “It’s not only getting worse because our county is in trouble, but we are waiting to hear about a huge proposed tax increase of 43 percent,” she said. Oswego County is also feeling the strain of a decrease in funding due to the closing of the Nestle’s plant. The United Way, which funnels most of its revenue to Catholic Charities, lost $41,000 in pledge revenue from Nestle’s according to Melissa Palstella, resource development director for the United Way. It was announced recently that two new chocolate companies will set up shop in the idle Nestle’s plant, bringing 633 jobs to the area over the next three years.

Despite the decline in the economy, agencies throughout Central New York continue to provide the homeless and the needy with a variety of comprehensive services through the generosity of individuals, businesses, churches and community organizations. Linda Wright, executive director of the Salvation Army in Syracuse, said that the shelter located on Salina Street is not one where people come just to sleep. “The family members go on with their lives while living in this shelter,” she said. “They go to jobs or look for jobs and their children go to school.”

One such family is Dione Dickerson and three of her children, ages seven, four and two-and-a-half weeks. Dickerson has been living at the emergency shelter since Nov. 6. Originally from New York City, Dickerson has been living in upstate New York since 1991. She is separated from her husband and is trying to get her life back on track. “My husband and I are trying to work things out,” said Dickerson. “When I left Oswego last year, I left everything. Now he’s helping me out.” Dickerson said she hopes to be in her own apartment by Christmas time. “But I won’t leave until it’s good for my children,” she said.

Dickerson’s new daughter was born with medical complications. Although she’s getting healthier every day, Dickerson is reluctant to put her baby in day care and return to her job as a certified home health aid until she feels secure with her daughter’s health. In the meantime, the Salvation Army requires its residents to work toward rebuilding their lives. “They provide us with phone numbers and addresses of agencies and landlords that can help us,” said Dickerson. “But we have to make the contacts.” Dickerson is waiting for an appointment with a county housing program that assists people in finding apartments and helps them budget and save money toward owning their own home someday. Chasz Parker, executive director of the Rescue Mission, is also in the business of helping people rebuild their lives. “We provide services all year round,” he said. “We try to provide the services necessary to get people back on their feet.” The Rescue Mission maintains a variety of shelter programs including adult home residences where clients live year round, outreach programs which provide clothing and furniture, and the New Beginning Program which trains clients for jobs, improves their education and offers support so that they can join the community. “The number of people staying in the temporary shelters has spiked during the past several months,” said Parker. “We average between 82 and 100 men a night. On two nights in October, we had 119 people check in. That was our biggest number ever.” When the numbers exceed the 80 beds available at the shelter, the Rescue Mission opens the gym, which is connected to the facility, to accommodate the overflow. The men are offered a mattress placed on the gym floor. The shelter also provides showers and washers and dryers for clients. In 2002, the Rescue Mission provided 266,179 meals, 80,297 overnight stays, 65,135 admissions to the daytime shelter, and 4,922 homeless van transports. “It’s not just older men that we serve, as many people may think,” said Paul LaDolce, director of one of the Rescue Mission shelters. “Many of the men are in their 20’s or 30’s and have been turned out by their families or are estranged from their families. Their backgrounds include mental health issues and alcohol and substance abuse,” he said.

Kathy Pfaffenbach is the coordinator of the Emergency Assistance Program for Catholic Charities of Broome County and also runs the food pantry. “The need is definitely economy-based,” she said. “I just had a guy in here who works three part time jobs at the mall and still cannot make ends meet. We interview all the people who come in. They have to have identification for everyone living in their household,” said Pfaffenbach. “We have information on what jobs they are holding, where they work and how much they make. It’s very common to have clients who work 40 hours a week, making minimum wage who can’t make ends meet,” she said. “These jobs are what high school kids use for spending money and the government expects them to pay rent and raise families on that income,” said Pfaffenbach. While Pfaffenbach was citing statistics, a woman sitting in her office nodded her head in agreement. The woman, her husband and their two children had just lost their home in a fire. “They lost everything,” said Pfaffenbach. “Their income was only $15,000 a year and they couldn’t afford renter’s insurance.” The woman was at Catholic Charities looking for clothing, furniture, diapers, formula and personal hygiene products.

Pfaffenbach said the number of people visiting the food pantry has doubled in the past couple of years. “Five years ago, we served 1,500 a month. Now, we average 3,200 people a month,” she said. Betty Guernsey is very grateful for the assistance Oswego County Catholic Charities provides to her and her family. Oswego County Catholic Charities has served 48,681 people to date for 2003, up from the 43,821 they served for all of 2002.

Guernsey, a former employee of Catholic Charities, is now a client in need. She was laid off from her job at Catholic Charities several years ago, and when asked to return, was unable to do so because she had to stay home to care for her daughter who suffers from mental illness. “It was either my job or my child,” said Guernsey. “My daughter’s therapist said she needed constant supervision.” Guersey said she was ineligible for unemployment benefits even though her daughter’s therapist sent a letter to the NYS Unemployment Office explaining that the child could not be left unattended. “It’s been tough living on one income,” said Guernsey. She and her partner, Joel Gonzalez, are raising their seven children on an annual income of $21,000. “I know that we are living below the poverty level,” she said. “But Catholic Charities has helped me out whenever we need anything.”

Guernsey said that her daughter has received counseling through Catholic Charities and is improving every day. “She’s been doing better since I’ve been home,” said Guernsey. “With medication and counseling, we hope that she will be able to function better in the future.”

At the Oxford Street Inn, program director Michael Sullivan said that his shelter is a nightly operation. The shelter has 79 beds with the capacity to accommodate up to 100 homeless men. “When the numbers exceed 80, people sleep on cots and on mattresses on the floor,” said Sullivan. “The majority of men who stay at the Oxford Street Inn are regulars. The Oxford Street Inn is the only shelter in town right now that services people who are actively drinking.” The shelter opens at 8 p.m. and closes at 8 a.m. It provides the homeless with a warm, safe place to sleep, a sandwich, shower and laundry facilities.

Sullivan said that people living on the street know where to go when they need a bed for the night. “With the Rescue Mission closing down their nightly shelter for alcoholics, we’ve seen a lot of people coming to our place we haven’t seen before,” said Sullivan. “Generally, during the course of a month, we would see about 18 to 22 new faces. Now we see about 40 to 50 new faces a month since the closing of that facility. The Oxford Street Inn also has clients who have lived there for 10 to 15 years.” Sullivan admits that people often look upon the Oxford Street Inn as an enabling program. “We don’t make judgements on where people should be in their lives,” he said, “even those who have been with us for years. The Oxford Street Inn is set up to take people as they are. The other shelters take those who can be rehabilitated. For those looking to get out of a shelter, we refer them to other programs.”

Sullivan explained that the Oxford Street Inn fills an immediate need. “Without the Oxford Street Inn, there would be a lot more hurting people out there,” he said. “We are the last house on the block for a lot of people.” The Guernseys will receive gifts and food for their children at Christmas from Oswego County Catholic Charities. “I’m hoping someday I’ll be able to go back to work at Catholic Charities,” said Guernsey. “But for now, they help me when I need it. I’ve never been turned away.” Likewise, Dickerson is grateful for the services provided by the Salvation Army. She and her husband are presently in counseling through their church. In the meantime, she is thankful to have someplace to stay. Whether providing food baskets, a hot meal, clothing or a warm place to sleep, the shelters in upstate New York also provide hope for a better future for the poor and downtrodden of all ages. “I think to myself how lucky we are to be able to live out the Gospel message of Jesus,” said Pfaffenbach. “How upsetting it would be if our faith asked us to close our doors and not reach out. Each day I know that I’ve helped many people. Our volunteers are God’s hands.”

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