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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."