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page 8 shelterCatholic Charities of Onondaga County opens new men’s shelter

As the late-afternoon sun slanted through the windows of the new Catholic Charities Men’s Shelter at 1074 South Clinton Street in Syracuse Sept. 24, it illuminated notes placed on the freshly-made beds: “Welcome to your new home!”

   That morning, residents of the Oxford Street Inn had packed their belongings and said goodbye to “the Ox,” the site at 201 Oxford Street that housed Catholic Charities of Onondaga County’s emergency overnight shelter for homeless men since 1979. At 5 p.m., residents entered the new facility for the first time, greeted by staff, volunteers and a safer, more comfortable place to rest their heads. A house of hospitality with a policy of turning no man away, including men struggling with substance abuse, the Ox saw demand for its services increase over the last three decades. When program manager Mike Milholland first arrived at the Ox as a volunteer in 1984, there were about 35 men being sheltered per night, he said. More recently, the shelter had seen more than 100 guests per evening.

   In need of more space and sensitive to the concerns of the residents in the Ox’s neighborhood, Catholic Charities of Onondaga County (CCOC) began the search for a new shelter site in July of 2012, CCOC’s executive director Mike Melara said during a private gathering at the new facility in August.

   “First, the size of [the Ox] wasn’t big enough to meet the needs of residents in a comfortable and caring way. Second, the location [of the Ox] is a residential neighborhood going through a revitalization that’s understandably not so excited about having a homeless shelter in the middle of it,” he said.

   CCOC started searching for available properties that were close to social and charitable services in downtown Syracuse, larger and wouldn’t cost a fortune to purchase and renovate, Melara said. The building on South Clinton Street proved to be the best by far — about 11,000 square feet in a commercial and industrial area close to downtown.

   The building was purchased for $275,000; the cost of renovations, which are ongoing, is estimated at $300,000 to $350,000, according to Scott Kelso, chief financial officer for CCOC. Financial support for the project came from a variety of sources including loans, donor contributions and Onondaga County’s Department of Social Services, Kelso said.

Quite different from its cramped predecessor, the spacious new dormitory is painted in soft greens and divided into “pods” by low walls. The 112 uniform beds, complete with new mattresses, are arranged in neat rows. Footlockers next to each bed provide space for the men to store their belongings. In the light-blue lobby area, armchairs, in which some of the residents prefer to sleep, provide space for 20 more guests. One resident also said he was particularly pleased to see the larger and more private restroom and shower facilities.

   In addition to being more comfortable, the new shelter is also designed to be safer. Security cameras allow staff to monitor activity inside and outside. A raised platform in the kitchen area of the dormitory affords staff a good vantage point over the beds.

   The new space also has private meeting rooms, where residents can work with relocation staff and case workers. The program will not stray from its core mission of hospitality to all, however there will be a renewed focus on empowering guests to get back on their feet.

   “Our goal is to have every single bed occupied by someone who, at this time in their life, has no other options. We really want to be that shelter of last resort. We don’t want to be a shelter of convenience,” Milholland said in August.

   Staff at the shelter have also started a daytime drop-in hospitality program at the new facility aimed at giving a small group of more long-term residents an opportunity to get off the streets during the day, staff member Henry Nicolella said.  

Three days after opening the new location, Milholland reported that the transition had gone “remarkably well” so far and that there had been only a few minor glitches. “[Residents] have been very helpful and very, very patient” as the staff works out things like new paperwork and laundry schedules, he said. “They’re very appreciative. I think they like the new digs.”

   The staff, too, is beginning to settle in. “They’ve done an exceptionally good job. There’s quite a sense of camaraderie. We’re all committed to the same mission and vision, and we understand the importance of doing things in the best way right from the giddy-up,” he said.

   But it will take more than three days to develop the same kind of connection with the new shelter that he had with the Ox for almost 30 years, Milholland said. In August, he called the Ox his “church,” a place where all the words spoken on Sundays are made real through actions and gestures and little things like finding a guest a pair of socks. He planned to bring that same spirit to the new facility.

   “Places become sacred because of the good things that happen there,” Milholland said on Friday. “That’s what we’re going to be working toward at the Men’s Shelter. We’re going to practice hospitality to the best of our ability and do for folks the very best we can.”

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