Schenectady homeless shelter sees partial funding restoration

Bethesda House to get more funds
Some of Schenectady's homeless take advantage of Bethesda House.
Some of Schenectady's homeless take advantage of Bethesda House.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

SCHENECTADY — A local homeless shelter has seen a slight boost in aid after City Council members restored more federal funding slated to be reduced in this year’s spending plan. 

Bethesda House asked for $205,500 in funds allocated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD); the city Development Office proposed $111,500, and the City Council ultimately authorized $129,500 on Wednesday. 

Without lawmaker intervention, the cuts would have amounted to an overall net decrease of $94,000 in funds from last year, resulting in an even heavier hit to programming designed to help residents at risk of losing their homes.

Lawmakers narrowed the gap by shifting funds from two housing initiatives: a reduction in aid to Better Neighborhoods Inc. from $150,000 to $136,000 and $4,000 from Habitat for Humanity of Schenectady County. The change slightly reduces their award to build two townhouses in collaboration with the Capital Region Land Bank from $140,000 to $136,000. 

The amended plan passed the full City Council 4-2, with Councilmen John Polimeni and John Mootooveren voting against. 

Councilwoman Leesa Perazzo offered the amended resolution.

Both Habitat and BNI facilitate “amazing work in the community,” she said, and each saw significant funding increases over last year’s levels. 

“But we also need to realize we have a significant issue with homelessness in our city and we need to also stabilize that funding at the same time,” Perazzo said.

Councilman Vince Riggi noted the story behind the “Homeless Jesus” statue outside of St. Luke’s Church on State Street.

A man found comfort in the church and its pastor during a rough patch. He later sent the church a check which helped fund the installation.

“Sometimes things come back tenfold,” Riggi said.

City Council Ed Kosiur said all organizations were doing good work for the city.

“As council members, we will continue to support you in any way, shape or form,” he said.

BNI and Habitat have served key roles in building affordable housing in the city’s most distressed neighborhoods, Polimeni said.

“We’re fighting to keep it or lose it to elements we don’t want to lose it to,” he said.

Mootooveren said he didn’t have anything against Bethesda House, but objected to last-minute changes to the funding allocations and said many nonprofits in the city were providing unnecessarily duplicative services.

“We need to look at consolidation and not give charity across the board,” he said, citing the need for non-profit groups to demonstrate their effectiveness.

Polimeni and Mootooveren also voted against the final action plan allocating $2.9 million to dozens of projects citywide, while Councilwoman Karen Zalewski-Wildzunas was absent.

Despite the partial restoration, the amended plan continued to zero out funding for eviction prevention programming, which has allowed Bethesda House to assist 45 households in the 2019-2020 budget year.

Last year, the funding stream prevented 57 households from being evicted, all of which remain stable today, according to the nonprofit.

In the current funding year, the shelter has prevented 32 households from being evicted, all of whom remain housed, and found homes for 61 formerly homeless people.

Bethesda House Executive Director Kimarie Sheppard thanked lawmakers for their advocacy.

“We are deeply grateful for the City Council members who advocated for Bethesda House,” Sheppard said on Thursday. “They truly understand the homeless and impoverished population in Schenectady, and not only the need for services, but the work that all nonprofits do to help stabilize an extremely vulnerable population in our community.”

BNI Chairwoman Mary D’Alessandro-Gilmore also thanked lawmakers for their support, alluding to the agency’s pending merger with Community Land Trust without offering additional details.

“There will be an announcement in a few months,” D’Alessandro-Gilmore said. “It is a venture that will result in rebuilding the neighborhoods, which we know for a fact has been the mayor’s passion.”

The city Development Office initially reduced allocations for Bethesda House’s Homeless Prevention and Rental Assistance Program, which provides rental assistance and security deposits, by about 44 percent, from $75,000 to $42,000.

Officials repeatedly attributed the decrease to a shift in federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) criteria and guidelines — not a matter of local preference or a reflection of the shelter’s work or mission.

“There was a few issues with the application because HUD has changed some of their reviewing techniques,” Kosiur said.

The $2.9 million package also contained $1.1 million in funds for city public works projects, including $100,000 to the city Code’s Department, $400,000 to city Engineering Department for street improvements and $301,255 to the Development Office for the demolition of derelict properties.

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