Committee will focus on shelter for county’s homeless

HUDSON–Tensions between the county and city government leaders have abated for the moment, as both sides agreed this week to have a committee discuss ways the county can house the increasing number of homeless people who require temporary emergency shelter.

The issue came to the boiling point two weeks ago, after Art Baer (R-Hillsdale), chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, announced that the county planned to lease all 34 rooms of the St. Charles Hotel for seven years and use the rooms for emergency housing.

The St. Charles is the only hotel in the city, and the county’s proposal was crafted without the involvement or knowledge of city officials. The county Chamber of Commerce condemned the plan, and it faced sharp criticism from Hudson Mayor Rick Scalera (D) and city residents.  Last week the Common Council took up the question of imposing a moratorium on new homeless shelters in the city.

But the controversy has now produced movement on stalled discussions about using a currently empty city building, the former Charles Williams School on north Second Street, as an emergency housing shelter. And the two sides are discussing that issue in measured tones.

Mr. Baer has appointed five people to serve on the committee: county Social Services Commissioner Paul Mossman, Canaan Supervisor Richard Keaveney, Austerlitz Supervisor George Jahn , Tina Sharpe, executive director of Columbia Opportunities, Inc.; and Fran Reiter, a part-time Taghkanic resident and a former New York City deputy mayor, whose portfolio included temporary emergency housing.

The mayor will lead the city’s contingent on the committee, whose members will include Second Ward Alderwoman Wanda Pertilla, Second Ward Supervisors the Rev. Edward Cross and William Hughes, and community activist and artist Linda Mussmann, director of the non-profit performance space and gallery TSL Warehouse.

The mayor said this week that he is pleased with the make-up of the committee and with the way the county is approaching the problem. The mayor wants the group to start by defining a “mission statement” so the city can “find out what the county’s problems are and try to figure out how we can help them.”

Mr. Scalera emphasized the many reasons why people end up without a home, which range from economic hardship to abuse, abandonment, addiction and mental illness. So he wants to identify who is in need and how those needs differ. In the process he anticipates “we’ll see a lot of familiar names.”

Mr. Baer said he was pleased that the mayor had “decoupled” talks over the county acquiring the Charles Williams School building for a shelter from another, equally contentious subject–t he decision to move the county Department of Social Services out of Hudson to a renovated building in Claverack. He said the immediate crisis facing the county is that it has run out of motel and hotel rooms where it can house people in need of temporary emergency shelter, and meanwhile the demand is increasing.

State law requires the county to provide temporary emergency housing to people who have no place to live, and the county had the resources to meet the need before the recession took hold. But now not only has the number of people seeking assistance grown steadily, the length of time they require temporary assistance has also risen, growing from an average of 50 days two years ago to 144 days at present. Mr. Baer said this spike in demand is exacerbated by the lack of options the county has for housing people, a situation that sees the county paying to house some people in motel rooms across the Hudson River in Catskill.

While attention is focused at present on using the Charles Williams School building, both the mayor and the chairman acknowledge that a deal may not work out. The city budget anticipates revenue from the sale of the building this year, and the city’s appraisal advised that the city could sell it quickly if the price was set at $650,000 for the structure and the land with it. The mayor said this week the city would sell the building to the county for $400,000.

Mr. Baer declined to characterize that offer, saying the county would have to pay for its own appraisal of the structure, something he wants the committee to consider. Overall, though, Mr. Baer sees the situation this week as overdue progress on a difficult issue. “I’m pleased we are where we wanted to be last year,” he said.

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