HUDSON–Winter homelessness and new concerns about the health and the records of veterans were among the issues on the agenda of the Columbia County Board of Supervisors Human Services Committee at the group’s Wednesday, August 17 meeting.
Saying that “everybody expects a very harsh winter, coming early and lasting long,” Robert Gibson, attorney for the county Department of Social Services (DSS), delivered the grim news to the committee: “We’re already over capacity” for sheltering homeless people.
He said that DSS case workers sometimes start the day unsure what to do if people show up seeking housing for that night, because the workers don’t know whether the county will have somewhere to lodge them. “We’re having difficulty finding places now,” Mr. Gibson said.
“We don’t have the capacity to absorb much increase in the number of homeless,” Kary Jablonka, county commissioner of Social Services, added. In winter DSS typically sees a rise in the number of people seeking assistance because they are homeless.
The county lodges clients who need emergency shelter in hotels and motels. But over the years, “we’ve lost hotel rooms,” Mr. Jablonka said. And new state regulations this year have “complicated” the matter, he announced. Any hotel or motel that uses at least 50% of its rooms for temporary shelter must submit a “plan.”
There is also an inconsistent policy regarding state reimbursements for housing homeless people. For each homeless household, the state limits the county to paying no more than $500 a month to rent an apartment but allows the county to pay for hotel rooms. Even if the nightly hotel cost is only $70, a hotel room costs at least $2,100 a month.
“We’ve been down this road before,” Mr. Jablonka acknowledged.
He said there are basic questions about what leads people to become homeless: “What do they want for themselves? Why did they make budget decisions that left them with no money for housing?” Some of them, he said, prioritize for expenses they feel are most “immediate”—food and gas. “People need to understand that the decision to spend money on one thing is a decision not to spend it on something else.” Clients get budget coaching, but “it takes time” to train them.
“There are some people who are going to be homeless for the rest of their lives,” said Supervisor Richard Keaveney (R-Canaan).
In July, the DSS had 55 homeless clients, the same number as in June. These included nine families. Mr. Jablonka said that it is harder to find shelter for families than for singles. Most of the single clients are men.
Also addressing the committee was Gary Flaherty, executive director of county Veterans Services, who announced that the state has ordered the destruction of all paper files at Veterans Services offices. The state will set a date and give the offices 18 months to computerize all records. At the end of that 18 month-period, the offices are instructed to have no paper records.
Mr. Flaherty declared that there is a need to retain paper files, calling them “historical data.” As an example he said that recently a veteran’s paper files provided proof for a woman that one of her ancestors had fought in the Civil War; as a result, she got a marker on his gravestone honoring this fact.
Taking up another matter Mr. Flaherty reported said questions have arisen regarding the drug mefloquine, used as prophylactic medication against malaria. In recent wars, the military has required its people to take it once a week; refusal would lead to court martial. But some service members who took it have experienced hallucinations, delirium, psychoses, suicidal thoughts, sleeping problems and other symptoms similar to those associated with post traumatic stress disorder, according to an August 11 report in Military Times by Patricia Kime.
The story in The Military Times, a private publication for current military personnel and veterans, cited a case study in which doctors suspected the drug had caused brain damage. The story said there have been calls to end use of the drug.
On a more positive topic, Mr. Flaherty announced that “right now I have more employers coming to me asking for veterans than I have veterans to hire. We’ve gotten jobs for 10 veterans this month.”
As part of his report he said the VA had told him it could take three to four months to correct the error that that caused VA computers to classify thousands of living veterans as deceased. He said he had arranged to restore the benefits more quickly than that for one of his clients affected by this error.
Also at the meeting Fair Housing Officer Bill Fisher reported that a client who complained her apartment was full of bugs and not well maintained had started withholding rent payments, and subsequently received an eviction notice, which she plans to fight in court.
He said she does not want to stay in the apartment, given its condition, but she welcomes the chance to have her say in court.
Mr. Fisher advised her to take pictures of her apartment to strengthen her case. In the meantime she is “working with the DSS to make sure she and her six children have a place to stay,” he said.
The next Columbia County Board of Supervisors Human Services Committee meeting will take place Wednesday, September 21 at 5 p.m. at 401 State Street in Hudson.