By KATIE HOOS
While the New Rochelle City Council considers striking up a partnership with one local organization to help reduce the city’s homeless population, some members of the community believe there are better options out there.
The council is eyeing a proposal from HOPE Community Services, Inc., a non-profit organization that provides community services to New Rochelle’s low-income residents and homeless, to create a homelessness resource center that would provide the city’s homeless with counseling and referral services and assistance with finding permanent housing.
HOPE currently runs a soup kitchen and food pantry, as well as a housing placement service funded by federal Housing and Urban Development grants.
HOPE came forward to the city with the program proposal late last year and the City Council, under Mayor Noam Bramson’s request, began discussing the issue in March.
“There has been an increase of homelessness in and around our downtown area and an increase in visible homelessness, which I think ought to be a concern…on both humanitarian grounds and because visible homelessness is certainly not good for the business climate in the central business district,” Bramson, a Democrat, said.
According to data provided by HOPE, the number of homeless using warming shelters in the region has increased by nearly 40 percent from December 2012 to December 2013.
HOPE’s proposed program would operate from the New Rochelle Oasis shelter—a 45-bed emergency drop-in shelter located at 19 Washington Ave.—from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., and from the HOPE Community Services facility located at 50 Washington Ave. from 2:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. Monday through Friday.
The program includes the creation of a homeless hotline, which would allow perspective clients to call for assistance, as well as merchants in the downtown area to call to refer someone they think may need the program’s services. Clients of the proposed service would also receive lunch, dinner, and a snack and be assigned a caseworker at no cost.
The program would cost the city $98,870 and would primarily be funded through the city’s Community Development Block Grant—a federal grant that funds affordable housing and other development needs—and corporate partnership.
The program aims to significantly reduce New Rochelle’s homeless population, specifically in the downtown area where the majority of the homeless reside during daylight, by 25 percent in the first year.
“It’s a promising intiative that may help us address a community challenge,” Bramson said.
According to Carole Troum, executive director of HOPE, the program would provide the homeless with a safe place to go as well as access to services to help get them back on their feet.
“If you have a drug or alcohol problem, we’re going to refer you to the right service,” Troum said. “If you have a mental illness, we’re going to refer you to the right service. If you need job training, if you need your GED, if you need to get food stamps; whatever it is to get you from totally destitute and homeless to the next place. Our goal is self-sufficiency and to get people into housing.”
By collaborating and coordinating with other resources in the New Rochelle community, including places of worship, local businesses, other soup kitchens and Oasis, Troum said HOPE would be able to reach a large portion of the city’s homeless population and provide them with the services they need, including employment assistance, housing and counseling.
“Our goal is to have a cluster of services…we think we can plug all these people into the different services at HOPE and also refer them out to other services,” Troum said.
But some critics of HOPE’s proposal believe the program doesn’t effectively reduce homelessness, but rather perpetuates it.
James Rye is the executive director of the Empowerment Center, a Mount Vernon-based organization that helps promote individual responsibility through various services and educational programs. He believes HOPE’s proposed day program would not sufficiently benefit the homeless community.
“We need to figure out what’s causing [the homeless] to not be able to earn a living. Rather than running a day program, what people really need is an opportunity more than anything else,” Rye said, adding the Empowement Center brings in business owners and other members of the community to be a resource for their clients, helping them to make a connection and establish a professional network.
“Case management, picking people up off the streets in a van and a daytime program are things of the past that the mental health system is trying to get away from now,” he said.
Dimensions Peer Support Center—a New Rochelle branch of the Empowerment Center—is a community center that helps adults in need, including those with mental illness, substance abuse and the homeless, by serving daily meals and offering self-help group sessions.
Laura Case, a former Oasis shelter resident and attendee at Dimensions, said she believes Dimensions could better service the homeless population if it was given the opportunity to work with the city.
“Homeless people have been using [Dimensions] for years,” she said, adding if Dimensions, located at 612 Main St., received funding through this partnership, it could serve more people and start its own housing initiative.
“I think HOPE does a great service in terms of running a soup kitchen, but their housing department doesn’t have the experience and level of care that other organizations do,” Case said.
When asked if he would be interested in a partnership with the City of New Rochelle, Rye said, “If they put it up for bid, I would definitely take a look.”
Pastor David Holder from the New York Covenant Church on Main Street in New Rochelle also believes the city should explore other options for funding a homelessness resource center.
“Transitional programs work and whoever gets this grant needs to have that specific experience,” Holder said.
Holder also said the city should open up this opportunity to everyone and issue a request for proposals since the city isn’t necessarily aware of what every church and organization does.
“I don’t think [the City Council] knows enough. HOPE does a lot of great things, but I think they’re choosing the choice of least resistance,” Holder said.
Critics of HOPE’s proposal are also concerned with the day program being partially run out of the Oasis shelter, which they say is in disrepair.
Case said the shelter is not equipped to handle a daytime program, much less function in its current capacity as an overnight shelter, given its overcrowding, structural issues—including cracks in the windows and a hole in the ceiling—and a bedbug problem.
Another former resident, who asked to remain anonymous, said the shelter has had ongoing problems with the bathrooms, which can be problematic when the shelter is at full capacity.
Republican councilmen Albert Tarantino, District-2, and Lou Trangucci, District-2, said they both have heard complaints from Oasis residents regarding the conditions and believe the problems need to be addressed. The shelter resides in the city’s 4th legislative district, represented by Councilman Ivar Hyden, a Democrat.
“The outside has serious maintenance problems,” Tarantino said after walking around the property. “Quite honestly, I’m very uncomfortable funding something that’s going to be attached to Oasis when all I hear are complaints.”
According to Bramson, the City Council is currently still discussing the homelessness resource center and will likely make a decision next month to determine if the city should move forward with HOPE’s proposal or have a competitive selection process involving other organizations.