Squalor persists, homelessness rises in county

HUDSON–Substandard housing and inefficient computer systems dominated the Columbia County Board of Supervisors Human Services Committee meeting Wednesday, September 21.

“Two days ago we had to remove a 19-month-old from a home that was so deplorable that our workers had to go home and shower immediately,” reported Social Services Commissioner Kary Jablonka.

“I don’t see how they can get away with renting them,” Supervisor Williams Hughes, Jr. (D-Hudson, 4th Ward) said, referring to apartments he has seen recently. “Tenants are afraid to complain,” he said, adding, “I see it more and more.”

Fair Housing Officer William Fisher said a tenant had called his office reporting that his water had stopped running. Investigation soon revealed that the landlord had not paid a water/sewer bill.

Meanwhile, the number of homeless individuals listed with the Department of Social Services (DSS) rose from 55 in August to 73 in September, the highest this year since January. The number of homeless families increased from 9 in August to 13 in September.

People fear that if they get thrown out of their apartment they will become homeless, reported Mr. Hughes. And then, some fear the DSS will place them far from the community they are used to. “Families double and triple-up to stay in a school district,” added Robert Gibson, attorney for the DSS.

One woman asked her landlord to make necessary repairs in her bug-infested apartment, got no response, stopped paying rent, started receiving eviction threats, and is fighting them, reported Mr. Fisher, Mr. Gibson and Mr. Hughes. The apartment was in such bad condition that she did not want to stay in it, the DSS found a place for her in Catskill, and she moved there, but she still wants her day in court and is seeking damages from the landlord, they reported. She has six children, one with a disability. Every weekday, Columbia County provides transportation for them in Catskill in Greene County to and from Hudson City School District schools.

Supervisor Richard Scalera (D-Hudson, 5th Ward) reported that the City of Hudson “hasn’t had the guts” to pass a “rental inspection law,” which could require inspection of every rental unit whenever it is between tenants.

“Even when we’re housing families in hotels, they’re not up to standard,” said Mr. Gibson.

Mr. Fisher reported that a woman who lived in shared housing with unrelated people feared bodily harm. She was able to move “out of there” to “a safer environment” and get back her security deposit and August rent, he said.

An elderly woman who faces eviction for smoking in her apartment, which she says she never does, has taken her case to court. Management did not renew her lease, but if she must leave her apartment, she has told Mr. Fisher she will “have no place to live.”

Another elderly woman contacted Mr. Fisher’s office about an abrupt rent increase of $150. The office checked agencies and determined that because she was not “in a rent stabilized area,” the rent increase was legal. But, Mr. Fisher acknowledged, “For a senior citizen on a fixed income, a $150 rent increase is a hardship.”

“We’re victims of a system that’s just nuts,” said Mr. Jablonka. “But we’re thinking outside the box. We want to get out of the hotel route.”

Turning to another matter, the committee heard that to input a new case for Meals on Wheels into the computer system used to take 10 minutes, but the last time it took four hours, reported Kevin McDonald, administrator of the county Office For the Aging. Formerly each county’s Office for the Aging used its own computer system, but now the state requires they all use a centralized database. The information technology (IT) company that supports it is different from the one Columbia County was using, the new system is “not user friendly” and it’s not running smoothly, either. But the state knows about this, and “hopefully it will improve as we get more used to it,” said Mr. McDonald.

The new system has an additional problem: it requires more personal information. After years of “preaching” to the elderly not to give out personal information, “now we’re asking for it,” observed Mr. McDonald. “People end up refusing services from us,” when they find out what information they have to give. And Mr. McDonald’s said that he had heard from a colleague in another county that the agency’s attorney there advised against using the new system.

But the move to electronic records continues here, with the state now requiring all applications and records of veterans’ benefits be 100% electronic, Veterans Service Department Executive Director Gary Flaherty told the committee. Part of this requirement includes shredding all papers in file cabinets. “I’m not going to do it,” Mr. Flaherty said. “I have documents from the Civil War. It’s part of our history.”

Also at the meeting Mr. McDonald said that services for senior citizens are not handouts, adding that these people have been paying for the services all their lives.

The next meeting of the County Board of Supervisors Human Services Committee will be Wednesday, October 19 at 5 p.m. at 401 State Street.

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