Forgiving approach to homeless encampment on Lomasney Avenue in Schenectady leads to housing for three adults

Schenectady police Lt. Ryan Macherone, in sunglasses, speaks to Laura Combs, executive director of New Choices Recovery Center, while Sgt. Nick Mannix speaks with Michelle Cejka, adult behavioral health care coordinator for Mohawk Opportunities, at the end of Lomasney Avenue on Wednesday. 

Schenectady police Lt. Ryan Macherone, in sunglasses, speaks to Laura Combs, executive director of New Choices Recovery Center, while Sgt. Nick Mannix speaks with Michelle Cejka, adult behavioral health care coordinator for Mohawk Opportunities, at the end of Lomasney Avenue on Wednesday. 

SCHENECTADY  — Police Sgt. Nick Mannix and Lt. Ryan Macherone helped break up a homeless encampment on the edge of Vale Park recently.

But instead of using bullhorns and force, the officers used a more patient and gentle approach, partnering with about a dozen local agencies to bring the homeless group supplies that they would need until they were ready to be placed in conventional, independent housing.

The encampment consisted of about a dozen people who rotated in and out of woods at the end of Lomasney Avenue.

Mannix called the coordination of services among agencies that weren’t necessarily working together a “beautiful thing.”

And he praised neighborhood residents for allowing the advocates to chart a more forgiving course, when their first instinct might have been to demand that the police simply kick them out.

Among the group of homeless who have been placed with housing are a man and woman who are now engaged, and a third person, a cat owner, who challenged advocates by insisting that she not be separated from her pets.

Mayor Gary McCarthy said issues with people staying in Vale Park first surfaced nearly two years ago. They were  creating problems for adjacent property owners. The message was eventually forwarded by Councilman John Polimeni, McCarthy said, and the city conducted followup, trying to make sure that activity going on in the park was appropriate.

McCarthy said he’s proud of the work Mannix and Macherone did, as it’s an example of police work that goes on daily to help people, “that are beyond what people would perceive as the traditional role of a police officer.”

A Lomasney Avenue resident who asked not to be identified saluted police and the agencies for their work. She said she noticed the police and agency workers trudging through the snow during winters to get to the encampment.

“I can’t say it was an inconvenience,” she said of the homeless’s presence. “We were worried about having fires. You’re scared at first because you don’t know what’s going on. They more or less minded their own business but then they started going around asking for food.”

Mannix and Macherone began going out to the woods last summer, but they couldn’t find the homeless until November.

Since then, a string of 100 or more emails with agency partners coordinated a massive effort to help the group.

The advocates include Bethesda House of Schenectady, Catholic Charities, New Choices Recovery Center, Schenectady County Health Services, City Mission, and Schenectady Community Action Program, and Mohawk Opportunities, among others.

Mannix said SCAP was “Johnny on the spot” whenever money was needed, and he credited Michelle Cejka, adult behavioral health coordinator with Schenectady County, for being a go-to person for needs with housing, case management, and at times setting up mental health and substance use services.

Leina Minakawa, who supervises clinical, social work, emergency services and outreach services for Bethesda House, all of which were involved in meeting needs of the encampment, said the organization had an outreach worker in the woods almost daily, bringing meals, blankets, and whatever else they would need, with the ultimate goal of trying to get them into the program’s emergency shelter.

They were able to house the cat owner, said Minakawa, who noted that homeless people typically want to stay with their pets.

“In that particular situation we accommodated her with a concrete plan of getting her housed quickly, and that did happen, which is exciting but it took Officer Nick, our social work staff, outreach staff, housing case management, it took everybody, including everyone else here, to do that.”

Minakawa said it took a lot of work to gain the group’s trust.

A Bethesda social worker,  John Clark, said, “It was just consistently going in and meeting with people and offering services and just offering again and again and again until they took us up on it. I think the big thing was always just speaking to people as people, with respect, and just letting them know that they have options and not forcing them to do anything.”

Minakawa added that it was important to meet the people on their terms.

On one particular day, she said, “we drove out there and got them a cup of coffee at Stewart’s because that’s all they wanted.”

“One time we went out four times within one week in the middle of a snowstorm just to say hello,” with Sgt. Mannix, Clark said. “It ended up paying off.”

Eddie Polanco, a resource navigator with City Mission, went out with Mannix during those initial days in November. He brought trash bags and food. And when one of their tents was destroyed during the winter, the mission paid for Polanco to buy them a replacement.

“This guy spent five hours trying to find them, just to kind of keep them informed of everything that was going on and just going out of his way to do stuff to work with them,” Mannix said.

“Teamwork,” Polanco responded.

Heather Charboneau, a peer navigation specialist for Catholic Charities, said she had already been working with the group, helping them with health insurance and medical appointments. She shared her phone number as a point of contact for appointments.

She also brought supplies.

Charboneau echoed the focus on gaining the group’s trust.

“That’s how everybody ends up being able to help at once, because they weren’t very open at first,” she said

Charboneau said she told the group she was only there to help them survive, and that no one was there to force them to do anything. The message paid off, she said.

Charboneau said there was more than a dozen people in the original group. About eight to 10 are still lingering on the streets, in different locations. But they’re all well-connected to resources, she said.

About the placement of the three, Charboneau said: “I’m more in awe of the perseverance that they have. And the fact that, even with all the obstacles that they did have in place, with all of our help, we were able to get through it together.

She said she wants people to be aware of the help that’s available in the city, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many people feel alone.

The Catholic Charities worker said the high cost of rent and expenses is among the draw of living on the streets.

“A lot of people don’t even know how to live normal because it’s generational,” she said. “They just were never taught how to live a normal, sustainable life, what it is to be productive, what it is even to cook or even take a shower daily.

“Those are things that I’m working on with them, to teach them those little things that all together add up into something bigger,” she said.

Lauren Combs, executive director at New Choices Recovery Center, which offers substance abuse treatment services, said one of the men who was housed is challenged by problems with alcohol use, and his partner wanted him to get help.

“The biggest thing for me is the partnership with these particular officers, who really care about the community and want to help people, and there was such a gentle approach,” Combs said.

“When we walked in, it was being sensitive that this is people’s space,” she said.

The alternative, she said, is just a short-term fix that builds animosity. And when bad feelings are involved, the homeless might not feel comfortable calling for help, even if it’s a medical situation.

“If you don’t approach people in a compassionate, healthier kind of way, then they’re going to be less likely to make that phone call and save a life,” Combs said. “It just has a domino effect.”

Categories: News, Schenectady County

CYNTHIA SWANSON April 15, 2021
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Indeed, a great story! No rousting by law enforcement, just attempts (in some cases, successfully) to get these individuals into safe housing where they will receive healthy meals, and other necessary care. Outstanding!

SHARON FLOOD April 15, 2021
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This is a very good thing. A number of different agencies offering assistance and no threats or force will get a lot more done. Schenectady needs so much more decent and affordable housing!!

James Stone April 14, 2021
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What a great story. Kudos to everyone involved!