- Kielawan Ahmed, assistant program director, and Shannon Glenn-Parker, residential coordinator at Family of Woodstock's teen shelter in Rosendale. Photo by Hillary Harvey.
On a cold night in January 2016, Ulster County counted 47 families asleep in emergency shelters. A January 2015 snapshot put the national number of homeless people at more than half a million, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a network of over 10,000 partners that provides data and research to policymakers and elected officials. These snapshot studies (a count done on just one night) are a common way to identify people with unstable housing. But with an underreported population that's in constant transition, it's not the whole picture of homeless families in America.
"People ask for statistics, and we had 741 separate individuals come through our shelters between January and October 2016, but each one has a life and story attached to them," says Linda Malave, the Director of Resident Services at Hudson River Housing, which offers 25 homeless service programs in Dutchess County, including emergency and transitional housing, case management, links to other nonprofits and government agencies, and affordable housing and home ownership opportunities. "Homelessness is multifaceted, people come to us from all different places. The three things I see a lot of are mental illness, substance abuse, and poverty."
Last school year, 339 homeless kids walked the halls of Ulster County's public schools. The McKinney-Vento Act, which provides federal money for homeless shelter programs and guarantees the rights of these students, defines them as any youth who lack a fixed, regular, or adequate nighttime residence. According to a fact sheet published by the Department of Education last July, more than 1.3 million homeless children and youths (tracked annually rather than in snapshot) were enrolled in public schools during the 2013-14 school year. It's disproportionately kids of color and LGBTQ youth. Irene Rosenberg, the Homeless Resource Coordinator at Ulster BOCES, says many people don't know that couch surfing with friends and family is considered homelessness, as defined by McKinney-Vento. There's a stigma, and she feels many don't want to admit it and be counted.
Rosenberg feels that getting the word out about homeless rights is important. School provides a sometimes uncommon stability for children struggling with insecure housing, so McKinney-Vento guarantees it be uninterrupted and optionally within their home school, even if they're housed in another district. "There are so many other factors they're facing," says Rosenberg. "Even if we all do our jobs the way they should be done, these kids have been hit with so many other issues: mental illness, multiple housing situations, no food or clothing, school absences. They may not have taken a bath for a long time." Being able to stay in their original school, where they have established relationships with teachers, friends, and a comfortable routine, is often ideal.
There are Title 1 funds available for transportation, but in rural school districts where the high end of need might be far away from necessary services, it's an expensive issue. Rosenberg says that public schools are being asked to do more and more while receiving less public funding. "McKinney-Vento requires that every school has a dedicated liaison who is responsible for identifying and providing services for that school district's homeless population, but it's an unfunded federal mandate," Rosenberg explains. So her goal this year is to meet with every level of personnel in Ulster County schools. She feels that if the registrars, receptionists, bus drivers, and attendants, who might overhear a conversation others aren't privy to, are educated about identifying signals, schools could have a better chance at helping kids who are struggling. "In a perfect world we'd catch them before they became homeless, so the liaison can be proactive."
"You Can't Cure Poverty"
Kimmer Gifford, the homeless liaison for the Kingston City School District (KCSD), is sipping tea at Outdated in uptown Kingston. The number of homeless kids in Ulster County excludes Kingston. Last school year, KCSD alone reported 277 homeless students, grades K through 12—more than double Ulster County's higher end of the spectrum. That doesn't include younger siblings and any parent attached to that count. As we talk, Gifford points out various locals and their acts of generosity. Waiting on line for coffee is an art professor from Sarah Lawrence who donates to Gifford's community garden projects at the Everett Hodge Center and the Midway Shelter, both in Kingston. Barbara Cohen coordinates a drive for brand new coats. Brinnier and Larios, a community-based engineering and land surveying firm in Kingston, in lieu of exchanging coworker presents, adopts about a dozen children from KCSD anonymously identified by Gifford, and gifts them everything from basic needs to mind-blowing surprises during the holidays. "We have so much fun shopping for them and their families, and hope sincerely that we make their Christmases a little brighter," says employee Heidi May Emrich.
A lot of Gifford's work is about connecting people to resources. "If I'm doing my job right, you won't know this kid is homeless," she says, referring to a sentiment she heard when she first started her position six years ago. Homeless high school students are often coming from a lifetime of housing insecurity, so sometimes it comes down simply to new sneakers. "Kids are more comfortable wearing the same coat their friends are wearing. It's the little things that really help: money for field trips, prom tickets, caps and gowns."
In her work, Gifford finds that homelessness is a possibility for anyone. "Once you lose your footing as a family in a housing crisis, it's about climbing back up when you're down," Gifford says with a sigh. "There are people battling mental health and addiction, but the blanket culprit is poverty." Gifford says the myths about homelessness are false. The majority of her clients are employed and want to work; they want good, safe housing for their families. But with a poverty level at $16,000, a parent working full time at minimum wage doesn't quite qualify for supports, and yet often can't find affordable housing on their wages of $1,500 a month. Families receiving housing grants have restrictions on the number of bedrooms they need to provide, dictated by the number and gender of their children. Gifford calls it a culture of poverty and worries that her work is just a Band-Aid. "You can create a foundation, but you can't cure poverty. You need affordable housing, and grants, and support for affordable housing."
The New World Foundation awarded Gifford $150,000 to help with her outreach programs, like the one that delivers eggs and milk from Boice Bros. Dairy to motels acting as temporary housing. "Kingston is an interesting community," Gifford muses. "Economically, we're not at the top of the paradigm, but donations are tremendous."
More than Shelter
When someone in Ulster County needs housing assistance, chances are they'll go to one of four shelters, two temporary housing programs, and other affordable permanent housing options run by Family of Woodstock, Inc. They host runaways, families, and youth without family resources who are preparing for independent living, for anywhere from thirty days to extended stays. Started in the fall of 1969 with impacts on the town of Woodstock from the famous rock festival of the same name, Family is the oldest continuously operating emergency switchboard in the country, maintaining 68 contracts in 2016 for state services and county programming.
They began with a fundamental service: shelter. In 1980, Family opened a domestic violence shelter. Then survivors were bringing their children, so the agency developed children's programming, and eventually the first Batterers Program in the region to address root causes. "So as we are presented with needs, we respond to the needs," say Executive Director Michael Berg. The agency grew organically and now services Ulster County and the surrounding communities.
Many of the youth they serve are runaways in need of a cooling-off period, and Family prepares them to reunite with their families, if the home is appropriate. "In this county, we're very lucky when it comes to the number of agencies and services that we have for children," says Kelly Warringer, Family's team leader for adolescent services. "And we have a really good relationship with each other. So we try to refer kids to as many services as possible, and give families many chances. Because they ultimately don't want to get placed [in foster care]. It's scary and traumatizing."
Trauma care is a large feature of Family's work, with staff attesting to the fact that all their clients have experienced some sort of trauma. "Homelessness in itself is a trauma," Berg explains. Family is known for its trainings, which other resources in the county utilize, such as the suicide prevention training. "If trauma or adverse childhood experience is untreated, that's going to affect how we make our decisions," says Salvador Altamirano-Segura, a team leader for Crisis Services at Family. "But the system wants to see changes immediately. If I'm giving you ten dollars to do this, I want to see the results tomorrow. But sometimes it takes years."
Often Family clients do stay a long time, and kids go on to college, then come back to visit. Family credits this connectedness to its nonjudgmental, person-centered approach in assisting people as they balance and maneuver in their lives. "We're not telling them what to do. We're asking them what they need and helping them to achieve it. That's a big difference," Berg explains. Family staff advocate for clients, too, and have negotiated with landlords to accept incremental payments of the thousands needed for housing deposits, a first step in getting into more permanent housing. "What's remarkable is how empowering it is for people," says Victoria Read, Family's program director for adult case management services. "Nobody's ever told them before that they could make the choice."
"If you think about it, this is just being human," says Altamirano-Segura. "We're just talking about building relationships."