A billboard near a Schenectady highway is calling for local officials to step up their efforts to combat homelessness.
Too many people are being shipped to shelters outside of Schenectady via public transit because local shelters don’t have enough beds, said Citizen Action of New York, which commissioned the billboard at the Broadway exit of I-890 last week.
“No excuses,” reads the billboard. “Shelter beds, not bus passes. Remove barriers, don’t create them.”
The progressive political organization wants county, state and city officials to allocate more funding that would boost the number of shelter beds and increase support for at-risk populations, which they say would reduce the need for floor mats and shipping people elsewhere.
The need is particularly acute when the temperature drops below freezing, sparking Code Blue alerts to get people off the streets, they say.
Shuttling vulnerable populations back and forth can be disruptive to those grappling with medical appointments and job opportunities, said Citizen Action.
“There absolutely has to be more resources at the city and county level to triage the crisis,” said Rebecca Garrard, statewide organizer for housing justice with Citizen Action of New York.
Citizen Action pointed at a 21 percent spike for homelessness or those at-risk between the final three months of 2018 and the year before, as reported in a Schenectady County report.
Community organizer Shawn Young said the “dramatic” increase is apparent citywide.
“On many of our corners, the homeless stand in desperate need of assistance,” Young said. “Our leaders must realize that housing is a basic human right and they need to stop putting vulnerable people on the back burner when it comes to housing.”
But county spokesperson called the billboard an “oversimplification and misrepresentation of a complex problem.”
In press materials promoting the billboard, Citizens Action said 2,773 people are “experiencing homelessness or are at risk for homelessness” compared to 2,245 people the year prior.
Citizens Action cited a quarterly homelessness report prepared for the county by the non-profit Cares of NY, Inc. for that statistic.
But the activist group didn’t cite the specific year.
The 2,773 figure refers to the third quarter of 2018, according to a county spokesperson, and the county’s homeless population actually decreased to 1,878 in the final three months of 2019, according to the same non-profit.
“The county works every day to address the underlying issues that cause people to be homeless while also making sure those seeking shelter have a place to stay,” said Erin Roberts, the county spokesperson.
The county’s Department of Social Services doesn’t run a shelter, but refers people to City Mission, the Altamont Program and Bethesda House.
County officials have acknowledged people may be occasionally transferred to shelters in Albany County, but said it’s not a regular occurrence.
“We are not aware of any individual who has not been provided shelter when requested,” Roberts said.
For the week between Jan. 31 to Feb. 6, the county served 190 people, sending 13 of them to Albany County.
City Mission Executive Director and CEO Mike Saccocio previously estimated the shelter transports people to Albany County several times per week.
Floor mats are not ideal, said Saccocio, “but it’s better than the alternative.”
“To draw attention is a worthy crusade, but I’m grateful a lot is being done because a lot of people are being helped,” he said.
City Mission is privately funded, but they do work with the county to discuss ways to fine-tune programming.
“A lot is being done, but there’s always more to do,” Saccocio said.
The county spent $2,217,236 on housing homeless last year.
The city also administers federal funds as part of the Community Development Block Grant system.
City Councilwoman Leesa Perazzo wants to take a look at options during cold weather and “appreciates” Citizen Action’s advocacy.
But she pointed out she did fight to preserve funding for Bethesda House last year.
The city initially reduced allocations for a program that provides rental assistance and security deposits by about 44 percent, citing a shift in federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) criteria and guidelines. But those proposed cuts were reinstated following pushback from City Council members.
“My voting record shows I’m very supportive of these efforts,” Perazzo said. “I advocated loudly and strongly the funds be reinstated.”
Kimarie Sheppard, executive director of Bethesda House, agrees more funding at the county level would be helpful.
“I understand the discontent and need for more funding and need for shelter in Schenectady County, but we’re really doing a great job,” Sheppard said.
Even when Bethesda House is at capacity, the shelter sets up extra cots to accommodate the overflow, she said.
Citizens Action is also calling for “structural changes” for regulation and policies preventing vulnerable populations from retaining temporary and long-term shelter assistance and stable housing.
The county Department of Social Services works daily with providers to find ways to improve services and move people into other types of housing assistance programs, Roberts said.
Those providers include organizations like Schenectady Community Action Program, which works with nonprofits to run programs designed to stave off eviction for at-risk populations by offering short-term resources to stabilize individuals and families in crisis.
They also work to prevent homelessness through advocacy and mediation between landlords and tenants.
Plans are also emerging plans to construct more shelter units.
Sheppard said Bethesda House will submit a grant to the state Office of Temporary Disability Assistance this summer for funds to build a shelter containing 40 beds and 14 emergency shelter beds.
“A lot of work is being done and there has been a lot of affordable housing in Schenectady County and a need for increase in shelter beds,” Sheppard said.
New Choices Recovery Center, a State Street-based substance abuse clinic, is also in the preliminary stages of exploring grant opportunities for new permanent supportive housing units.
“We’re just building on what we already do,” said Stuart Rosenblatt, executive director. “We’re always looking at the opportunity for unmet need, particularly for the people we serve.”
The proposed efforts join scores of affordable housing units constructed recently in the city, including Joseph Allen Apartments and Hillside View in Hamilton Hill.
Work is currently underway at the Renaissance Square Apartments on Eastern Avenue, a Better Neighborhoods Inc.-facilitated project, and Community Builders is planning a second phase of apartments in Hamilton Hill.
“The whole country is dealing with the housing crisis and affordability,” said James Flacke, executive director of Better Neighborhoods.
Families who pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing are considered rent-burdened, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
At least half of the city’s renters fall under that criteria, Flacke said.
“And 30 percent of those have high rent burden, which is over 50 percent of their income,” he said.
Citizens Actions praised the influx of affordable housing. But waiting lists can be long and residents can still struggle with affordability, said Garrard, the statewide organizer.
“Often what’s defined as affordable is not what we’d consider affordable for populations who end up homeless.”