ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10)- Addressing homelessness is a complex problem for every community including here in the Capital Region. While the issue gets a lot of attention during the colder months of the year, the need continues as the temperatures get warmer.
“It’s a huge problem year-round,” said St. Joseph’s House Executive Director, Kevin O’Connor. He said despite preconceived notions that more shelter is needed in the winter, their highest request for emergency shelter happens in July and August.
O’Connor attributes this to Code Blue mandates that require counties to provide shelter in severe weather. This program expands the number of available beds. However, O’Connor said, “More (homeless) people die in the summer. There were 4 funerals we went to this summer.”
O’Connor said homelessness is difficult to track for a variety of reasons including a lack of information from rural areas, the fact that homeless individuals tend to drift across county lines and lack of information from private shelters.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) tracks homelessness nation-wide through Homeless Management Information Systems (HMIS). The system uses Point-in-Time (PIT) and a Housing Inventory Count (HIC) to determine how many sheltered and unsheltered individuals there are on any one night according to the HUD website.
“The system makes it very difficult,” O’Connor said. Private shelters do not receive any state, local or federal funding, therefore they do not have to participate with HMIS. One of the largest shelters in Albany, Capital Rescue Mission, does not contribute any information to HMIS. “Which means Albany is significantly undercounted,” said O’Connor.
Homeless individuals by county
Allyson Thiessen, Director of the Homeless Management Information Systems (HMIS) at CARES of N.Y. in Albany and her colleagues are working against those odds to get a more accurate count of homelessness in the Capital Region and its outer lying counties.
Thiessen acknowledges HMIS isn’t a perfect way to capture the exact amount of homeless in any area but it is useful. “While this doesn’t show the whole picture of homelessness, including couch surfing and sleeping rough(sleeping outside), it is a key element that we can use to measure need,” she said.
That need can then be used to secure more funding Thiessen said. “Federal funding requires a lot more data,” she said. “Better statistics” means “better money” she said. Right now Schenectady is the only local county with 100 percent participation from shelters in HMIS.
Number of Capital Region homeless within a year
Thiessen said in counties like Fulton, Montgomery and Washington the Department of Social Services is the only sheltering program and they have only just started reporting in HMIS. In Greene County, the Department of Social Services is the only sheltering program but they do not report in HMIS.
“Everything we do is to use our resources as well as possible,” said Thiessen. “We have such limited funds. We want to help everyone but we have to prioritize,” she said. For example, Thiessen said, there are many local communities in the Capital Region that do not have available shelters and many that are not available for families, as is the case in Saratoga.
Thiessen said she reminds her staff that the numbers they are working with constitute individuals. “These numbers represent human beings and there are stories there,” Thiessen said. She said she knows it’s not easy for homeless individuals to answer uncomfortable questions from shelter workers but that the work is important for future planning. “Our homeless folks deserve a lot more than we can give them,” she said.