Homeless Need Somewhere To Turn

While the common perception of a “homeless” person is typically a disheveled vagabond-type sleeping underneath a bridge, a newer – and perhaps more alarming – face of homelessness is proving to be much more prevalent.

Miguel Soto, a 40-year-old Jamestown man who recently lost a series of odd jobs in the city due to cutbacks, is – in many ways – the latest victim of the country’s economic travails. For regardless of his willingness to work and sustain himself, he is homeless.

And now, staying at a friend’s apartment, Soto is finding it difficult to get back on his feet, hindered mostly by a lackluster jobs environment and a shortage of government funds that can adequately pay for assistance grants and housing subsidies.

“It takes a toll on you after a while,” said Soto, in regard to his situation. “(I know) a lot of people will say, ‘look at this guy, he’s looking for a handout.’ But I don’t want to be treated special, I just want to be treated fairly.”

Indeed, Soto’s indictment of unfairness is not only shared by others, but indicative of a larger concern for assistance services at large: are they fully equipped – and funded – to handle the growing rate of homelessness in New York state?

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, New York state has had the largest increase in homeless individuals from 2007 to 2013, totaling nearly 15,000 people.

While much of this number can be found in New York City, there is no question that economic hardships have led to significant homelessness in Upstate New York as well.

“Chautauqua County is one of the most impoverished counties in New York state,” said Frederick Barney, housing services manager with Chautauqua Opportunities. “(This is because) there’s a lack of living wage jobs here as well as a skilled workforce. Anybody who goes to college is told by their parents to go somewhere else …and our skilled labor force takes off.”

Barney also described a surge in homeless single mothers who are victims of domestic abuse, as well as so-called “under-housed” individuals – like Soto – who find themselves staying at a friend or family member’s residence.

Getting out of these situations, according to Barney, is no small feat.

“If (the poor) make no money at all, the government helps them,” Barney said. “But if they get a job, it’s usually (minimum wage) and part-time … and it doesn’t pay any benefits. There’s no incentive for people to get that job because it’s impossible for someone to leave (government) subsidies and have enough to cover rent.”

Nanci Okerlund, program director for transitional housing at the Jamestown YWCA, echoed Barney’s observations.

“I’ve been here since 2001, and we’re finding that the issues facing the population we serve are increasing every year,” said Okerlund, referencing the population of women and children housed by the YWCA. “With the economy tanking and a lack of safe, affordable housing or employment … the populations that we serve end up staying longer.”

Despite the bleak picture, Barney, Okerlund and others involved in helping the homeless are still committed to expanding services, including requests for more state and federal grant money.

“We talk consistently with (our legislators) … and they help us take our concerns to Albany and Washington,” Barney said. “We try to help anybody who comes through the door regardless of any impediments they have … we don’t want anybody to be homeless in Chautauqua County.”

Chautauqua Opportunities, located at 402 Chandler St. in Jamestown and 235 Park Ave. in Dunkirk, provides a number of services for homeless individuals, including a housing plan, temporary subsidies, the assigning of a self-sufficiency facilitator and assistance in networking with local services and programs.

The Jamestown YWCA, located at 401 N. Main St., provides transitional housing for women and their children, on-site case management and workshops to assist them in attaining safe and affordable housing.

Individuals requiring immediate shelter can stay at the Union Gospel Mission, located at 7 W. First St., where beds and three meals a day are provided.

As for Soto, only time will tell if his luck starts to change.

“Everybody struggles,” Soto said. “But everybody should at least get a chance to know what resources are out there. That’s all I want. If a person needs help, we should help him out and not use his past to judge (his current situation).”