By CLOEY CALLAHAN
At the end of January, volunteers, elected officials and anti-poverty organization RECAP participated in HUD’s annual Point in Time Count to talk to those on the streets who are suffering from not having somewhere to stay.
The group of about ten individuals interviewed, observed and assisted anyone on the street who identified as “houseless” – housing advocates began using houseless instead of homeless due to the connotations of ‘home’ meaning more than a structure to live.
The COVID-19 pandemic showed a clear effect on the houseless population. Michele McKeon, Chief Operating Officer at RECAP, saw that there were less people in the spots where they usually find folks – for example 24 hour establishments like the laundromat or McDonalds.
“Because you’re not allowed in there anymore, we haven’t found as many people as we have in the past,” said McKeon. “That was something we noticed straight off.”
Additionally, due to construction projects in the City, there was an increase in fencing up around those areas where they have found those suffering from homelessness in the past.
“That was a little concerning because where have they gone?,” said McKeon. “If they found housing, that’s fantastic. If they haven’t, that’s not great. Have they been driven further underground? That’s troublesome and we’re worried about that.”
During the Point in Time Count, volunteers were able to give those on the streets a bag with easy to eat items and were able to offer a place to stay for the night. However, McKeon said there was pushback on the latter. Last year, they were able to make six phone calls to set that up. This year, it was only three.
“The overall feeling when we debrief at the end of the night is there are still too many folks out on the streets and too many folks that are unaware of the resources that they have available to them,” said McKeon.
For example, one woman didn’t realize she was eligible for Medicaid, which could possibly pay for her hearing aides.
“As service providers, we are somehow missing the mark in getting the word out that there are ways that help is available,” said McKeon. “It’s a much deeper conversation amongst service providers and how we go about bridging that gap and making sure that if you are cold and on the street at 3 a.m., you can call and we can get you somewhere to stay for the night.”
McKeon also saw a clear connection between houselessness and health, saying that these folks were not in good health either.
Following the Point in Time Count, a report is written and is published around April or May, where the data can then be analyzed.
“It’s a snapshot in time which can change very quickly,” said McKeon. “It doesn’t take into account if we were out too early or too late. There is probably a good amount of people we didn’t run into that night.”
For McKeon, it all goes back to the question of how service providers are supporting those who struggle with houselessness. However, having different people involved, including elected officials like Councilman Anthony Grice and Orange County Legislator Kevindaryán Luján, allows for policies to be made and see first hand what it is like for these individuals.
“The Point in Time Count is an opportunity to not only identify holes in our system and ways we can improve our county services around homelessness and supporting people in crisis but also a chance to speak first hand with community residents on their needs,” said Luján. “This year’s crisis certainly felt like an understatement with a rise in opioid cases, a rise in domestic violence, growing unemployment, a growing housing crisis and much more. Many of these were challenges Newburgh was facing prior to the pandemic and were only made worse this year.”
Luján also pointed out how it is not easy for people to ask for help.
“We can always take a critical look at the work we’re doing and how we can make it less cumbersome for these people to access services,” said McKeon. “That’s on us as service providers to listen to the folks we are counting and see how we can do better.”
She said the conversations were consistent with what they see in needs assessments as well, which focused on healthcare, affordable housing, food insecurity and more.