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GUEST COLUMN: Addressing homelessness requires a monumental effort

GUEST COLUMN: Addressing homelessness requires a monumental effort

Come together for legislation, federal and state funding

For The Sunday Gazette

According to The National Alliance to End Homelessness, nationwide homelessness decreased by 15 percent from 2008 to 2018.

In Schenectady County, the number of homeless increased by 2 1⁄2 times (from 195 to 393), yet the number of unsheltered decreased by 83 percent (152 to 11) over that same period.

This data is from HUD’s annual Point in Time Count, “the only nationwide survey of homeless people” (NAEH, 2018). 

This is a monumental success for Schenectady County and is supported by the collaborative efforts of the Homeless Services Planning Board (HSPB).

The HSPB’s goal is to eliminate homelessness and ensure a comprehensive system of supports for those who are homeless and at risk of homelessness. 

For nearly 20 years, the HSPB — which comprises human services agencies, government and school officials — has worked to expand tenant rights and accountability, help landlords optimize their investment in housing, improve landlord-tenant relationships, and build a comprehensive system of emergency, transitional and permanent housing. 

More than 75 percent of Schenectady’s housing stock was built prior to 1960, and 58 percent was constructed prior to 1940 (2018 Schenectady County Community Needs Assessment).

Close to a third (31.5 percent) of all households in Schenectady County are cost-burdened, defined as over 30 percent of income expended on housing-related costs.

Using this basis, an hourly wage of $19.85 is needed to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Schenectady at fair market rent (FMR).

The mean hourly wage for renters in Schenectady County is only $13.79. 

In addition to cost burden, 80 percent of the lowest-income households in Schenectady County with incomes below 30 percent of HUD Area Median Family Income, experience at least one of three additional “housing problems” — incomplete kitchen facilities, incomplete plumbing facilities and more than one person per room. 

In general terms, this explains the more than twofold increase in the number of homeless from 2008 to 2018.

NO EASY SOLUTIONS

Of course, homelessness is a complex issue.

Cost burden alone shows the difficulty in affording rent, utilities and other basic needs.

Additional barriers such as untreated mental illness, addiction, inability to work due to disability and history of incarceration combine to make it extremely difficult to avoid housing instability. 

The organizations that make up the HSPB are tireless advocates for housing stability, and recently created a systems committee to work on improving how people are transitioned out of various systems.

For example: Working with the hospital system to avoid discharging folks to homelessness.

LOCAL TAXES NO ANSWER

The issue of homelessness cannot be resolved by local property taxes.

We need to insist that our state and federal governments provide the funding needed to build safe, affordable housing, such as the affordable housing projects currently being built on Albany Street.

But these solutions require time and money, and the cost is well beyond our local tax base, which is already overburdened by high housing costs. Continuing to build on the back of local property taxes is a regressive approach. 

Schenectady’s shelter system is one of the best in New York state. And while we do not support sending people elsewhere, this is likely due to our system being full or a personal safety issue.

Ultimately, the objective is to ensure that people do not sleep on the streets, and staff do an amazing job finding people shelter. 

Citizen Action is a well-known organization with a reputation for advocacy supporting progressive tax reform.

I’m surprised a billboard outside the Department of Social Services (DSS) is seen as an effective means to change trajectory. How would you like to be the hardworking people at DSS having to see that every morning?

They are not creating the problem. They are simply implementing policy passed on to our local county from federal and state government. 

I’ve been an advocate for all of my 30 years at Schenectady Community Action Program. I know that much can be accomplished when people come together.

We need to come together advocating for an equitable federal policy, because more effective strategies at the national level are needed. 

Debra Schimpf is chief executive officer of Schenectady Community Action Program.

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