Bright-colored blankets and sheets lay neatly folded at the foot of 24 beds in the overflow unit at the Rescue Mission.
“We went to bunk beds this past winter and doubled from 12 to 24 beds,” said Charley Rhodes, the Rescue Mission’s program manager for case management. The mission is one of two shelters for homeless men in Syracuse. Said Rhodes, “Because we were often at capacity, we were getting so many men in chairs each night. And we decided to double up to prevent that from happening.”
The Rescue Mission is on the front lines of Syracuse’s struggle to house its homeless people. It is one of a half dozen groups that provide shelter to those without a permanent roof over them. Some of the homeless are on the streets from drug abuse, from longterm unemployment, from mental illness and from domestic violence
Consider these statistics:
- In Syracuse, shelters have been operating between 100 to 127 percent capacity over the past year, according to data from the 2011 Homeless Management Information System. It is a database run by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
- The database also shows the number of families staying in shelters increased more than 65 percent, from 747 in 2010 to 1,234 in 2011.
- Also between 2010 and 2011, the number of individuals in Syracuse-area shelters increased almost 5 percent from 2,606 to 2,728.
Despite those increases, those who work with the homeless suggest that local organizations are doing a better job of helping the homeless.
Anthony Discenza, an Onondaga County community development officer, expresses amazement over the coordination of homelessness services in the last decade and the community’s efforts in obtaining more information on homelessness.
Before the coordination, he said, “If I rolled into a better shelter that offered more, then I may have gotten a Cadillac of services.” He added, “Today that has changed significantly due to the coordination of services.” Now, the services are similar at most of the area’s shelters, he said.
For example, the Continuum of Care — or CoC — is a local planning group that coordinates housing and funding for homeless families and individuals as part of the federal housing department. Thanks to yearly surveys and the federal department’s database, local governments and social-service groups have better data on which to make decisions, Discenza said.
“These decisions,” he said, “are thus in turn allowing cities to make wiser community decisions.”
In 2011 as part of the federal Homeless Assistance Program, New York state was awarded slightly more than $8.4 million. Of that, Catholic Charities in Syracuse won $451,589 to pay for permanent housing for the homeless in what’s called a housing-first approach before trying to solve the homeless population’s other problems, such as drug abuse or domestic violence.
Housing-first is an opportunity for those in shelters to settle into a comfortable and secure living situation first and then get their life in order, say its advocates. The program is an effort to keep those who have moved to permanent housing to stay there. To qualify for the program, individuals must be homeless and have a disabling condition such as a physical or developmental disability.
Chris Curry, associate director of community integration and self-sufficiency at Catholic Charities, said the non-profit already rents nearly 100 apartments and will use the recent grant to rent more apartments and provide services to more homeless families in need. The group has been using that approach to homelessness since 2005, he said.
“We pay the rent, we keep them housed,” Curry said. “And it appears to be working.”
The grant will allow Catholic Charities to rent 150 units. The permanent housing, Curry said, creates stability for those who had been homeless.
“Homeless people aren’t different than anyone else. There are a lot of people with a little bit of bad luck,” Curry said. “A lot of people didn’t really expect that they would ever be homeless.”
At the Rescue Mission, program manager Charley Rhodes blames the overflow of homeless men on the economy. “Our numbers do go up when the economy goes down and many times it depends on marketable skills,” Rhodes said. “If people are working off of a high school diploma and working blue-collar jobs, then they do appear to be more susceptible to being homeless.”
Rhoades expresses enthusiasm for the government’s increased support for programs to help the homeless.
“I think compared to other parts of the country and overall, the city and the county have gone a long way with support for the homeless,” he said. He added, “I think it’s hard to say whether or not homelessness has abated over time. But we certainly kept it from becoming epidemic as it is in some other places in the country.”
(Sistina Giordano is a graduate student in magazine, newspaper and online journalism.)