SCHENECTADY — A local program helping homeless mothers transition to permanent housing turned 25 this year.
Administrators of Schenectady Community Action Program’s Sojourn House in Schenectady noted the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — which has forced women to stay longer in the temporary residence — has also highlighted just how resilient the program participants are.
“It’s really amazing to us, the resilience of a lot of people that we serve, to be able to get and maintain jobs, and maybe finish an intensive nursing program while living in a transitional housing residence,” SCAP CEO Deb Schimpf remarked.
A mother putting her child in transitional housing is a significant upheaval in a family’s life, the CEO suggested.
“You might have had to flee and leave all your things behind,” Schimpf said. “They’re not coming to us with their couch and their bed or anything. They’re coming sometimes with a plastic bag. It’s really just a testament to their resilience.
“And then to be able to do it during COVID? How scary. I mean, I was scared and I lived in my house; I had moments during the pandemic where I felt afraid. So it’s really been something to watch the character and the resilience of people during this time.”
Sojourn House, which provides meals and is staffed 24/7, prioritizes finding the women — which includes women with children, and women who are pregnant — permanent housing.
But during their stays at Sojourn House, the women are assessed about their specific needs. Those needs could be finding a stable job or advancing their educations. It also helps them develop life and parenting skills, and career planning.
The house holds seven families at a time, and prior to the pandemic, the average length of stay was 55 days. During the pandemic, it’s increased to 94-days for an average stay.
Ultimately, at Sojourn House, each family’s stay is completely different.
“Sometimes people are just with us for a few weeks, and sometimes people stay up to a year,” Martin said. “We’re really focused on helping them with their unique needs that they’ve identified, driven by them. We’re not telling them, ‘this is what I want you to do, this is where you should work and where you should live.’ “
Schimpf said the agency does prioritize finding the women housing because having a roof over one’s head allows a person to work on other challenges.
None of the residents were willing to speak firsthand to the Daily Gazette about their experiences. But the agency said it has produced multiple success stories during the pandemic — and prior to it — including a woman who stayed a year and completed an online associate degree program.
Elise Martin, director of community services, said she’s noticed that many incoming families are focusing on getting themselves stabilized, including for an exit from domestic violence.
“We’re seeing a lot of moms who have been focusing on getting services in place for their kids,” Martin said. “So behavioral health support, special education resources, really making sure that they’re set with their education, especially because the school year has been so back and forth, and kids are remote learning and things like that.”
Martin said many families have been connected to SCAP’s Rapid Rehousing program that provides intensive support for a year-and-a-half after they leave Sojourn House, and rental support for a year. The mother pays 30% of her income to rent through the HUD program.
The rehousing program makes sure that the apartments to which they are graduating pass local code inspections, are safe, and of good quality.
It also makes sure the units are affordable for when the mother eventually assumes full rental payments, Martin said.
Additionally, the wraparound support program tries to boost the mother’s income through employment and public benefits.
Martin suggested that the guaranteed rental support is desirable to a landlord during a time that has been challenging for many owners of rental units in the area. Presently, there’s an eviction moratorium in the state due to the pandemic.
“We’re there for the landlords and we’re there for the tenants, so we’re helping them both have the best relationship possible, and make sure both of their needs are met so it stays a healthy working relationship,” Martin said.
Martin said the families at Sojourn House support each other and tend to maintain lasting bonds and relationships and help each other after they leave the program.
The agency works directly with the Schenectady County Department of Social Services and the HUD’s continuum of care process, meaning women in need of services are considered concurrently for Sojourn House, Shelter Plus Care by New Choices Recovery Center, and county municipal housing.
“There’s no wrong door, so they can go to any agency in the community and get on one waiting list, and then that is reviewed by all the providers on a biweekly basis to see how we can help people as quickly as we can,” Martin said.