Without a Home
How are the homeless helped in the greater Plattsburgh area?
Mary*, 26, a Clinton County resident, worked two low-wage jobs eighty to ninety hours a week. She was making roughly $9 an hour at a warehouse, and $7.50 at her other job. After growing tired of the strain, she quit one job and worked thirty-five hours a week. Her boyfriend was still working his two jobs at the time.
On August 10, 2006, she experienced a lot of pain and discomfort, forcing her to take a day off to go to the emergency room. Unexpectedly, she learned she was pregnant. The complications required her doctor to strongly suggest that she stop working. At this time, she was two and a half months pregnant.
Mary had her son on March 5, 2007. When he was three weeks old, Mary's boyfriend was taken to prison for parole violations. She became a single mother with no income, which required her to apply and receive public assistance for her and her child.
One month and two weeks later, she brought her father and his girlfriend, who were struggling with drug addiction, to live nearby. As a result of these problems, Mary sought temporary custody of her two half-sisters instead of having them sent to foster care.
For four months, she could balance public assistance for herself and her son. With the added children, she was told by social services that she could not work and properly care for all three children under two-years-old. So she became a full-time mother. But, it proved a grave challenge to care and provide for two additional babies. There were days when she consistenly went without sleep.
"Sometimes I wouldn't sleep for two days," Mary says.
She didn't always have the money to buy what they needed. It took four additional months to receive financial aid for the littlest one. The eighteen-month-old girl is still waiting to be provided for.
How did she survive? "Mother's instinct," she says.
But then things got worse. Her rent was paid by New York State Social Services (NYS SS) every month on the fifth, but her landlord was upset about when the checks were coming, she says.
"I don't have control of what day they pay," she explains in exasperation.
The day before her rent was due; her landlord kicked them out.
"One of his employees was going to become homeless," Mary explains, therefore, they were evicted. "It wasn't even right."
A friend allowed Mary and her family to stay with them in a five-bedroom apartment. The friend also had three children of her own, aged thirteen, ten and seven. Needless to say, it was a full house. Mary explains that NYS SS said it was okay for her to stay with a friend, but child protection services said they couldn't.
As a result, they went to a welfare motel outside of Beekmantown. These motels are not the safest place to be, says Maureen Bradish, director of the Greater Plattsburgh Interfaith Hospitality Network (GPIHN). Pedophiles, and other former prison inmates from local high security centers, stay there when they are released. Transportation is also not provided, Bradish notes. And meals are primarily cooked in the microwave, Mary says.
"Contrary to popular beliefs, [the homeless] want to be in their own place, providing, and taking care of themselves and their children."
After four days, Mary was referred to the GPIHN by the Department of Social Services (DSS). She was interviewed to enter the program on September 25, and was accepted on September 31.
At GPIHN, there is an application process. Only families are admitted, which includes pregnant women. An individual must sign contracts that they will not use alcohol or drugs because it is a family place with many young children.
Applicants must have no past with domestic violence to ensure the safety of all individuals working with GPIHN. There is also a specific program, STOP domestic violence, set up to better address the needs of individuals who are victims of domestic violence. They provide safe apartments that only people in the program know about. Security is heightened in this housing program.
Additionally, the individual must not have mental health issues that interfere with their ability to interact with other people.
"I've had people with bipolar disorder, but they used medication to regulate it," Bradish says.
Ultimately, the decision is hers.
"I can tell if they don't want to change," she says. She doesn't admit these people into the program.
"Most people don't want to be [in the program]. Contrary to popular beliefs, they want to be in their own place, providing, and taking care of themselves and their children," Bradish says.
"Homelessness is everywhere, not just in the city."
Hundreds of thousands of women, like Mary, experience similar situations across the country. In the greater Plattsburgh area, thirty families were helped last year. By the second week in October 2007, thirty-one families were helped. Bradish explains that high gas prices and living costs with stagnant wages has attributed to this. Poor economic times tend to leave the working poor homeless. Sudden illness, physical accident, or job loss are other factors.
It's not so much bad choices, Bradish says. "It's just lack of support."
The GPIHN is one of the organizations set up to help low income and homeless families. It provides food, transportation, shelter, and support networks to find jobs, apartments, and medical care.
Families spend their nights in area houses of worship on raised air mattresses. "They're comfortable, like sleeping on a bed," Mary says. Smaller children sleep on regular low-to-the-ground air mattresses, so they don't fall. Portable cribs are also available. The church prepares home-made meals in a large dining hall. Each church, for one week, hosts up to fourteen guests. The congregation organizes meals, activities, and sleeping arrangements for families.
During the day, families are brought to the First Presbyterian Church where the GPIHN has a day center. This congregation donated the space to the organization for $1 a month, Bradish says.
Here, there are plenty of toys for young children. A large screen television is surrounded by couches with clean, carpeted floors. They are given their own phone line to receive and make calls. There is a living room, kitchen, large bathroom that is complete with a baby changing table, and two family rooms with a couch, chair, toys, crib and television in each.
The point of moving from congregation to day center every day is to get people up and going, Bradish explains.
GPIHN is a local and national non-profit organization. They utilize a network of religious congregations and charity organizations to provide a greater base to overcome homelessness. Three hundred to four hundred volunteers tend to the daily chores. Bradish is the only full-time, paid employee.
The GPIHN was initiated by Lutheran Pastor Julie Berghdahl. Before she was transferred to work in Plattsburgh, she worked with Interfaith Hospitality Networks and knew its benefits. Berghdahl brought the program to the local area because she was seeing a lot of the same problems her former congregation had. Recently, she moved out of state.
"Homelessness is everywhere, not just in the city," Bradish says.
"[The network] was able to work because of Commissioner Jay Lepage, who applied and received a $60,000 grant for the project," Bradish says.
Bradish, who originally worked for the DSS, chose to become the director when it began in 2003. When they started, eight congregations committed to the program. Now, twelve are committed, with a possible addition of one more getting involved in the near future.
Bradish feels that the greatest significance of the program is opening people's eyes to the awareness of this huge problem. The homeless aren't, in reality, what the stereotype describes them as. They're not that different from you and I, Bradish says, "they're just down on their luck."
Proudly, Bradish states that her average length of stay is about two weeks. The average county government programs take approximately two to six months, she cites. She is able to help families find an affordable apartment and a job. She admits this varies based on the needs of the families, though. NYS SS can pay at least one month and security on an apartment until the family gets back on its feet. If the mother can't work, Bradish helps find social services that can help. She also helps families apply for Medicaid.
A lot of people come back to visit, Bradish says. She hopes to start a support service to help these families stay on track and continue to move in a positive direction. She would also like to hire an assistant, and get further improvements completed on their day center.
She also hopes the families in her program continue to do well outside of GPIHN.
"I want them to make good choices in budgeting. A lot of them call me mom," Bradish states. "They know I care."
She considers her program much more personable than others. It hurts a parent's pride to hit rock bottom, she explained, "but they'd rather be here [than on the streets]."
"Maureen has done a lot. I think she's done more than she had to," Mary says.
Bradish is helping Mary's father and girlfriend find an affordable apartment. On October 22, Mary was waiting for the paperwork to be finalized so she could move into her appartment. Bradish is also helping Mary find a day care center, and attempting to get the eighteen-month girl a birth certificate. Additionally, Bradish is supporting Mary's dream of becoming a certified nurse or working in child care services by helping her apply to school.
"Things keep getting better," Mary says with a smile. "Starting little-by-little."
The Greater Plattsburgh Interfaith Hospitality Network
36 Brinkeroff Street, Plattsburgh, New York 12901
The network is a part of the Interfaith Council of Plattsburgh and Clinton County. All Interfaith Hospitality Networks are a part of a greater organization known as Family Promise.
According to Family Promise's Web site, children under the age of six are the majority of the guests in the program. They boast that they are able to provide these services on par with government programs at a much lower cost.
The GPIHN plans to change their name to Family Promises in upcoming years.
Churches in association with the Greater Plattsburgh Interfaith Hospitality Network
St Mary's/ Newman Center
Temple Beth Israel
Our Lady of Victory
Unitarians at United Methodist Church
Church of the Nazarene
United Methodist/Morrisonville Methodist
Funding provided by:
Assembly woman Betty Little - $10,000
Janet Dupree - $10,000
DSS, Temporary Assistance to Needy Family Grant - $50,000
United Way - $15,000
Emergency Shelter Grant - $12,000
Donna Trombley hosts a porch sale at her house, located at 210 Margaret Street in Plattsburgh, to help raise money for the homeless every day from morning to night. Donna knits, crochets, and creates ceramics for the cause. She sells various home-made, as well as donated objects, and all proceeds go to the GPIHN.
Other congregational and private donations
GPIHN's Local Board of Directors – according to Bradish
Mona Goldenberg – CV Tech
Debbie Francis – Social Services
Fran Wright – Rural Law Center
David Valchovic – Director of Evergreen Town House Community (another organization involved in helping the homeless)
Stuart Voss – Citizen's Bank
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