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Orange County's homeless program to serve as a model

By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO — February 26, 2008 — After spending three-quarters of a million dollars on housing for the homeless last year, Sullivan County is looking at a very different way of dealing with the issue.
“We can’t keep doing business as usual,” remarked the chairman of the Legislature’s Health and Family Services Committee, District 8 Legislator Ron Hiatt.
On Thursday, Hiatt introduced John Harper to fellow legislators during his recessed committee meeting. Harper is the executive director of the Orange County Emergency Housing Group, a non-profit, private entity the county is considering modeling – or even hiring.
Harper, who has been involved in the social services for 21 years, explained that the Emergency Housing Group is overseen by an 18-member board and contracts with Orange County to provide shelter, food and referral services for homeless singles, drug addicts, runaway youth, and those suffering from HIV/AIDS. The agency also offers an aftercare program for the disabled, tending to about 3,000 people every year.
“We can accommodate about 100 people on any given night,” he revealed, including up to 10 families in quarters segregated from individuals (who themselves are segregated based on gender).
The terms of the group’s approximately $1 million annual, performance-based contract with Orange County requires them to move all but the youth and disabled out of their facility within 90 days – “from crisis into some sort of stability,” said Harper. (Those with drug addictions are placed into appropriate treatment programs much more quickly – in less than five days.)
While the disabled remain with the agency as long as necessary, officials are given as much time as needed to place the youth in a safe situation, either with biological or foster family.
Lacking such a centralized facility, Sullivan County places its homeless – adult individuals and whole families – in hotel rooms in and around Monticello and Liberty at a monthly cost of $2,000 per room, said County Manager David Fanslau.
Last year, Sullivan spent upwards of $750,000 on the program, he added, while Orange paid around $1 million for a vastly larger population, indicating some savings to be had.
Harper said the Emergency Housing Group’s budget is actually around $4 million, with Orange kicking in between 25 and 30 percent (depending on the program), the federal government supplying 50 percent and the state making up the remaining 20-25 percent.
“I do a lot of grantwriting to support the operation,” Harper acknowledged.
Of particular interest to legislators is the agency’s focus on the big picture – not just housing the homeless, but helping them overcome their situation and become successful, contributing citizens, thanks in no small part to relations the Emergency Housing Group has cultivated with 60 different social services organizations, both for-profit and non-profit.
“We can build safe, affordable, decent housing,” Harper explained, “but that doesn’t necessarily mean individuals are going to be successful in independent, healthy living.
“. . . What we have found,” he continued, “is that we have become a surrogate family for the people we serve. People are hungry for those ingredients they missed out on… in not being in a family unit.”
While he stressed that professional boundaries are never crossed, Harper is proud to admit that his staff, many of whom are not actually social workers (and about 10 percent who were homeless themselves at one point), treat consumers with dignity and compassion.
He’s also proud to say that landlords love the agency, as once people are able to leave the shelter, they seek housing through the program, which offers building owners steady rental income and a guarantee that most all problems can be handled through the agency.
And as a result of this big-picture approach, the recidivism rate – how many people end up back on the streets or the welfare rolls – is about two percent, he said.
“The last thing we want is for them to go back into the system,” Harper explained.
With a track record that includes a $2.6 million grant to renovate the shelter and not a single employee ever being physically hurt, the Emergency Housing Group quickly caught legislators’ attention.
“What do you do that we don’t do?” wondered District 7 Legislator Leni Binder.
“Case management is the critical component,” replied Harper. “We also do some welfare-to-work activities, and cultivating relationships with landlords is key.”
He said the agency often scores deals on rental rates, the reverse of Sullivan’s situation, where, according to District 2 Legislator Kathy LaBuda, owners of shabby, non-code-compliant hotels have “socked the county because they knew we didn’t have any other place to put these kids.”
While LaBuda felt costs could be halved by building a shelter and contracting its operation with Emergency Housing Group or another agency, Binder was concerned that legislators didn’t yet have a handle on the whole idea.
“I don’t think we really know what we’re looking at,” she said, whilst also acknowledging she liked what she did see thus far.
To that end, Division of Health and Family Services Commissioner Chris Cunningham promised to discuss the matter in-depth with Harper and report back to the legislators in a month or two.

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