County committee hears of woes facing vets, homeless

HUDSON–At 4 a.m. Gary Flaherty, executive director for Veterans Affairs in Columbia County received a phone call. “I’ve been thinking about committing suicide,” said the caller, a U.S. military veteran. “I called the suicide prevention hotline and got a voice mail.”

Mr. Flaherty stayed on the phone with him an hour and a half that time and has spoken to him several times since. He’s seen a news story that of every three veterans who call suicide hotlines, two get voice mail.

Mr. Flaherty reported this experience to the Columbia County Board of Supervisors Human Services Committee meeting Wednesday, October 19. Other topics covered at the meeting included homelessness and drug addiction.

On the subject of mefloquine, Mr. Flaherty he said the military has required combat troops in recent wars to take this medication though it has adverse side effects. Mefloquine is used as prophylactic malaria prevention, while much of the combat in recent wars has taken place in desert ecosystems, where mosquitoes do not swarm.

Evidence suggests the drug might affect people even after they have stopped taking it. Possible effects include contributing to violent behavior. “They’re calling mefloquine the Agent Orange of current wars,” said Mr. Flaherty. He now reads a list of its suspected side effects to every veteran of recent wars that he sees and asks if they have them.

Kary Jablonka, commissioner of the Department of Social Services (DSS), told the committee, “Everybody is aware that we have a real problem” with opioid substance abuse. “Rather than just let this thing play out, we have a legal obligation to do something,” he said. “There have been deaths; we don’t want more.”

November 9 the full County Board of Supervisors will convene at 6:30 p.m., an hour before the regular meeting, for a presentation on the drug abuse situation.

On the subject of homelessness, Robert Gibson, the attorney for the DSS, said that the state will reimburse the county about $45,000 for efforts to house the homeless last winter. “But that doesn’t fix the housing problem,” he said. This will be the first time the state has reimbursed the county and he believes there is no guarantee it will do so again. In some weather county policy calls for putting a roof over the head of every homeless person, even of those normally ineligible for aid.

Supervisor William Hughes (D-Hudson, 4th Ward) noted the need for three types of housing: emergency, transitional, and permanent. “You won’t get them all in the same municipality,” he said.

Mr. Gibson and Mr. Hughes continue to meet and talk with Hudson city officials about the situation. “If we could get transitional housing, it would be a big plus,” said Mr. Hughes.

One possibility is for the County to have its own building for emergency and transitional housing. Mr. Gibson wondered whether leasing or buying “some places” would be a better approach.

Currently the DSS sends clients to hotels. The cost is $80/night and totals over $400,000 a year. “If we succeed, we pay $80 a night. If we fail, we pay $80 a night,” said Mr. Gibson. “With the model we are using, we have no leverage.”

In addition, Mr. Gibson expressed dissatisfaction with the condition of and services available at some lodging. “I have told the comptroller’s office, ‘It’s good that you inspect hotel rooms. But if you shut the ones we use down, we still have to house the people.’ “

“We’ve been down this road before,” said Supervisor Richard Keaveney (R-Canaan). “We’ve looked at buying hotels. When [the owners] find out you want to buy, they double the price.”

Kevin McDonald, administrator of the county Office for the Aging, said, that once in his town there was a rumor that a facility for the homeless was coming, “and the people hit the fan.” They worried about sex offenders.

“With these hotels, the homeless are already there,” said Mr. Hughes.

Fair Housing Officer William Fisher reported that a tenant had called complaining about mold in her current residence. She is eligible for senior citizen housing and given a list of options, but he said that the waiting list for this housing is usually long.

Special obstacles arise for people with poor credit scores or criminal records. Mr. Hughes pointed out that “some people have housing problems because they made poor financial choices,” which worsen their credit scores.

Mr. Fisher reported that a new HUD regulation attempts to stop landlords from denying apartments summarily to all people with criminal records. Now landlords have to consider applicants on a case-by-case basis.

Mr. Flaherty spoke about a woman veteran with two children about to become homeless. “We have a program to find housing for single veterans, but it’s harder to find it for families.”

Also at the meeting:

• Mr. McDonald said the Office of the Aging still had problems with its data system, adding, “But we aren’t the only county”

• Matt Murrell (R-Stockport), chairman of the Board of Supervisors, said a new van for transporting veterans is due at the end of the month.

The next meeting of the Board of Supervisors Human Services Committee will take place Wednesday, November 16, at 5 p.m. at 401 State Street in Hudson.

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