May 24, 2024
Exterior of Loaves and Fishes

Community Organizations, Herkimer County Officials Collaborate on Homeless Challenge

The homeless population in Herkimer County has more than doubled in each of the last two years. Officials in Herkimer County and the Loaves and Fishes Warming Center have partnered up to mitigate the issue in the valley.

Randy is 32 years old and has been homeless for about two years. He lost his home in Utica after becoming addicted to drugs and moved to Herkimer. He said he is receiving treatment for his addiction at the RISE Recovery Center, which is run by Catholic Charities, but is still living on the streets. He utilized the Loaves and Fishes Warming Center for overnight shelter several times during the winter, but come April 30, that will not be an option for at least five months.

“I did sleep in the snow one day, I did what I needed to do to survive,” he said. “When the center closes, I’ve got nowhere to go.”

Eric has used the warming center every night for the past two months. He became homeless after losing his job, and has struggled to get back on his feet since.

“This is the first time I’ve ever been homeless. I’ve always had a job since I was 14 years old.”

The sleeping area at the Loaves and Fishes Warming Center. 12 – 15 cots are folded up behind the white lattice barrier on the right and are rolled out to the main floor and prepared each night for use. Photo credit: Scott Kinville/The General.

Although homelessness is not a new problem, the rate of homelessness has been on the rise over the past decade, and the numbers are reaching alarming levels.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) homeless assessment report to Congress, there were 653,104 homeless people in the United States (sheltered and unsheltered). This number is up 70,642 from the 2022 total.

The numbers in New York state are just as staggering. The Empire State’s homeless population rose 39.1% from 2022 to a total of 103,200 homeless people in 2023. It should be noted that New York City accounts for a vast majority of New York State’s numbers.

The New York State Office of Temporary Disability Assistance tracks the homeless populations for particular counties in the state (https://otda.ny.gov). It states the homeless population in Herkimer County for 2023 was 94, double what it was in 2022, and in 2022 it grew by 26 from 2021 (up 163%). The leading subpopulations within the homeless population were the chronically homeless at 47, nine individuals with serious mental illness, and nine people with a substance use disorder. Neighboring Montgomery County also had a 55% increase in its homeless population from 2022 to 2023.

Life at the Loaves and Fishes Warming Center

The Loaves and Fishes Warming Center is a homeless shelter located on North Prospect Street in Herkimer, and provides a place where the homeless people of Herkimer County can get a bed and roof over their heads for the night. It is nearing the completion of its first full season of operation, it opened on October 1, 2023 and will close for the summer on April 30. It is not a 24 hour center as it opens at 9:00 p.m. daily and closes at 7:00 a.m. It is run by staff and volunteers, and it is the only warming center in Herkimer County.

Christine Lawrence is the Program Director for the Loaves and Fishes Warming Center. From her experience at the center, she understands there is no singular reason people find themselves homeless.

“There’s a variety of reasons,” Lawrence explained. “Some addiction, drug and alcohol addiction. Some are just coming out of incarceration. Some have mental illness, and some have just lost their jobs and homes.”

The Loaves and Fishes Warming Center is open to anyone who needs its services, but there are rules that are strictly enforced for the safety of everyone involved. Every night, each person that comes in is screened with a series of questions and scanned by a magnetic wand to ensure no weapons are being brought in. Once the screening process is complete, anything a homeless person has brought in is secured in an overnight locker.

“The intake information is fed into the HMIS system, which is a HUD program system,” Lawrence explained about the start of the intake process. “From there, other HUD program recipients such as the Department of Social Services can see the information that’s in there and this helps us with funding HUD programs. When they’re done with the intake process, they have to go through the guest rules, and they have to sign the guest rules that they agree to them. From there, if they need any items, any hygiene items, clothing items, we gladly give it to them. They get coffee and a snack at night when they come in. They get gloves, mittens, scarves, and a lot of these items were donated by Catholic Charities and many other people. Donation givers throughout the community, they’ve been wonderful.”

The overnight lockers at the Loaves and Fishes Warming Center. Photo credit: Scott Kinville/The General.

When the warming center closes at 7:00 a.m. the people who have utilized the facility the night before are given the contents from their overnight locker. They are also fed breakfast and given a bagged lunch to take with them before they leave. As far as shelter goes, however, they are on their own.

The financial costs and expanding services for the homelessness in Herkimer County

The issue of homelessness is much more complex than simply finding shelter for these people. Many times, these people are experiencing problems with mental health, drug/alcohol addiction, or both. The center cannot provide these types services, but is receiving help from the county via its Department of Social Services to ensure the needed services are provided. Herkimer County is also financial aid conduit to the Loaves and Fishes Warming Center via funding from New York State.

Jim Wallace is the Herkimer County Administrator. Together with Herkimer County Commissioner of Social Services Tim Seymour, they are concentrating their efforts on the financial end of the homeless problem. Since the county does not have a permanent year-round homeless shelter, it must pay for lodging to provide shelter for those who need it – and it is expensive.

“The taxpayers have spent putting people in hotels and motels and that kind of thing probably anywhere from $800,000 to a million dollars a year,” Wallace said.

Seymour pointed out that New York State does provide aid in the form of Code Blue funding, which pays to shelter the homeless during the cold months of the winter. Other funds from the state include a rental supplemental program, a grant called Solutions to End Homelessness, and domestic violence homeless housing funds. The funds the county receives from the state and federal governments are directed to Catholic Charities, as they are the housing lead in Herkimer County. Seymour also feels the costs are enormous.

“The biggest expense because it’s an emergent need is housing people, and we don’t have a homeless shelter,” he said.

Mental health is one of the biggest issues among the homeless population. Several years ago, New York State began shutting down many mental health facilities in favor of treating these patients on an out-patient basis. At first, the state provided a lot of funding to Herkimer County to help care for these people. Things have changed, however, and Wallace is not happy about it.

“We got sold down the river five or six years ago, we lost that funding from the state,” Wallace said. “So yeah, they’re doing some good things, but I think one of the big things they did is doing away with the state facilities.”

Herkimer County faces a daunting task of caring for its homeless population, but the Loaves and Fishes Warming Center has been a bright spot.

“The numbers have come down in 2024 from last year. This is a representative (estimated) number, it’s not the actual, but this time last year in 2023 there was 94 folks. This time this year on the same day is 35, so that’s a good sign.” He credits the Loaves and Fishes Warming Center with helping the county to provide the best services it can.

“They’ve been a big help with that,’ Seymour said.

Both Herkimer County officials and the staff at the Loaves and Fishes Warming Center are also aware of the need for a summer months cooling center and a long-term, year-round shelter.

“We need something for them to do, somewhere for them to go during the summer months,” Lawrence said. “The best thing we can think of was to put our heads together and come up with a cooling center. That way they (the homeless) can still feel like they’re getting the food that they need, getting help that they need, whatever resources they need.”

The homeless problem is one that is not going away anytime soon. Fixing the issue will take time, money, resources, and continued cooperation between the local municipalities and community organizations. Despite the challenges, desire is strong amongst all involved to work together on fixing the homeless problem, Christine Lawrence knows that she and her staff are not alone.

“Everybody’s been wonderful,” she said. “We have wonderful support throughout Herkimer County with all the agencies and programs that they have. The Herkimer Police Department has been wonderful to work with. The Department of Social Services, Commissioner Seymour, our legislators, everybody really does support what we’re doing and everybody has played a role in one way or another to make this successful.”

Scott Kinville

Scott Kinville is a Communications and Media major who has returned to Herkimer College after getting his original degree nearly 30 years ago. He is currently a firefighter/EMT for the City of Little Falls Fire Department and is pursuing his current degree to prepare for a post-retirement career in journalism. Scott is also the owner/editor of http://cnyhockeyreport.com and the host of the Awesome 80's Lunch Hour which is held on Fridays from noon to 1 o'clock on WVHC.

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