Housing the Homeless

Better services to homeless people

May 10, 2018

[In the current hotels] there is no continuity of service.… The sink’s are about the size of an airplane sink.… A lot of times the water is not working sufficiently.… The beds are abysmal in many of the hotels I have visited.… The sheets are not replaced… and they’re threadbare.… Microwave a lot of times isn’t working.… It’s difficult to prepare a meal that’s cost effective.… Until we can get a shelter this is the closest we can come with having some case management services available.… This is a much less risky endeavor than many of the places where our children are placed now. This is better that what is in place.

Tara McSherry Wolff
Working with homeless for 11 years, social worker for 30 years.

Updated Agreement

Since I first posted on this subject in January, I've made dozens of suggestions to the proposal and there have been improvements. Most notably:
  • DSS is in charge of disbursing the 30% for services
  • The contract is reduced from 5 years to 3 years
  • More specific details about the facility amenities and maintenance policy
Some of my suggestions were not adopted, including:
  • Request for Proposal (RFP)
  • A formal cost/benefit analysis of the project
Read the contract.

Background

The current situation needs improvement. On a given night, Columbia County places 50 to 100 homeless people in area hotels. In addition to covering the costs of the room, the county also provides transportation. Each person is assigned a case worker with Department of Social Services (DSS) who can help navigate the available services. There is a big range of how long someone is housed with temporary housing, it can be for a few nights to get out of the cold. Several people have been housed for over eight months. The average stay is four to six months.

Columbia County, like many rural counties, does not have a homeless shelter and uses hotels for temporary housing. New York State has standards for this practice and reimburses a portion of the costs, 29% for individuals and up to 100% for children and families. Most of our homeless population are individuals. The 10 hotels that Columbia County uses are almost entirely renting to DSS.

Robert Gibson, commissioner of DSS, reports that it is challenging to provide adequate temporary shelter with the current hotel options. There aren’t enough quality rooms and DSS is often forced to use hotels that are too far away and/or have bad conditions. There are complaints of bed bugs, dirty sheets, and no toilet paper.

Proposal For a Better Facility

The Galvan Foundation is opening a hotel that could serve the homeless population. DSS and Galvan are discussing a three year agreement.

Galvan is remodeling the Sunset Hotel which is located in Greenport near the intersection of Routes 9 and 23, six miles southeast of Hudson. According to Galvan, rooms could be available as soon as June 2018.

The Sunset will have 24 rooms for rent. Galvan states that these room will be better than the rooms DSS currently rents, and describes them as newly constructed “nice rooms.” There will be a community kitchen, computer stations, and green space. The site includes two rooms set off from others that would provide better options for a family.

The Sunset will also provide onsite wraparound services. Thirty percent of the revenue for the room rental will be allocated to services that could include counseling, housing assistance, and security. DSS will hire an agency with experience working with homeless people in Columbia County to manage the service. The onsite services will supplement the DSS case worker and the other services available to all homeless people that are placed into temporary housing. The 30 percent would not go to regular hotel services or maintenance. There will be onsite office space for the service providers.

The contract would create a reciprocal commitment for three years between DSS and Galvan. DSS would prioritize the Sunset for placements and would only place homeless in other hotels after the Sunset is full. Columbia County would not be required to fill the Sunset, just that it place people there first. In return, the Sunset would prioritize renting rooms to DSS. Given the recent numbers of homeless, this agreement would likely lead to the Sunset to be full with DSS placements for the entire three year period.

Benefits

Advocates Support

On behalf of the [Columbia Greene Housing Coalition Continuum of Care]… I ask that the committee take whatever steps are necessary to go forward on this project.

Tina Sharpe Homeless advocates have spoken in support of the project. I’m not aware of anyone with experience working with or advocating for the homeless who are opposed to the plan.

Facility

The proposal offers better rooms, community kitchen, and community computer room. It eases the current scarcity in quality, affordable rooms. The Sunset remodel is new construction and will have new supplies and furniture. So it will certainly start off nicer than many of the current options. I would imagine that quality will degrade over time, and if quality is bad at the end of the three year contract, then the County doesn’t need to renew and we still got some gains at the beginning.

Also, the Sunset is offering things that are unique or rare (community kitchen, computer space, full size sinks, and space for services). If Galvan doesn’t follow through with the contract, then the County can exit the contract. There will be some gray area as to what exactly determines a breach in contract. But the most egregious stuff will certainly be cause.

One of the problems in the current situation is that there is a lack of options. DSS knows some hotels are in bad shape, but they don’t have anywhere else to place people. It’s already sending people to Greene, Berkshire, and Rensselaer Counties. Avoiding a hotel will likely mean pushing even farther away. If Galvan works out, then there will be more leverage with options. But if Galvan doesn’t work out we are stuck with the current situation—at least for the near term.

Location

It would be great to have the facility walking distance to grocery stores, workforce development opportunities, and services. While the Sunset Hotel location is not ideal, it is comparably closer than many of the current hotels in use. The average distance from the hotels to DSS Hudson office is 16.6 miles, while the Sunset is 5.3 miles. The average distance to a grocery store is 3.7 miles, the Sunset is 1 mile from Hannaford.

DSS currently provides transportation to people placed at hotels. Having a closer location and also having many people in a single location would make it easier to provide more regular transportation.

In addition, the County currently runs public transportation between Hudson and Columbia Greene Community College. This route runs three times a week, twice each morning and twice each afternoon. Sunset Hotel could be added to this existing route.

Neighbors to the Sunset Hotel have expressed concerns about the location. We should work with the neighbors to identify solutions to key concerns, including safety concerns. Some security policies have been agreed to based on these conversations.

At the same time, we must consider that we have a legal and moral obligation to provide temporary housing to homeless people. It is extremely difficult to find a location that is near DSS and grocery stores and at the same time a location that is not near other people.

Services

I just want to explain my support for this project… The situation we have now with our hotels is unacceptable. The [proposed] model…seems ideal to me to provide wraparound services.

Michael Cole
Columbia County Director of Community Services
Social Worker for over 40 years

Offering on site services could be a big benefit to people needing temporary housing. If DSS places people at full capacity, then around $200,000 per year would be allocated towards on site services. The cost for these services would be partially reimbursed by NYS through the room rate reimbursement. There are opportunities for additional reimbursable on site services. Presumably these on site services would help reduce other DSS costs.

Cost

Galvan hotel prices are less than average after subtracting NYS reimbursement and provider grant
Galvan hotel prices are less than average after subtracting NYS reimbursement and provider grant

In 2017, temporary housing for Columbia County’s homeless cost over $900,000. Given the NYS reimbursements described above, that puts Columbia County’s share of the cost around $600,000. This cost does not include transportation or other services.

On average, hotels cost $65 per person per night. Some are as high as $95 per person per night. Forty-five percent cost $80 per person per night or more.

From the cost end, the plan is an improvement over the current situation. Rooms are $85 per night. Galvan would give 30 percent back to DSS and DSS would use that money to contract for onsite services (not hotel operations). NYS also reimburses about 30 percent of the $85 per night. After the credits, the Galvan proposal is less than the average cost. Also the site would serve about one-third of the total homeless placements, so that would enable the County to focus on the cheaper/better options for the remaining two-thirds. Plus transportation costs at the new Greenport location will be cheaper compared to current locations.

Predicting Hotel Costs

The contract is a three year commitment and locks in the cost and facility with a three percent per year increase. During this period, do we anticipate that our other options will improve?

Due to a new law in Castleton, we are likely to lose one of the hotels we currently use. That brings our options down to nine. In addition, the housing market is going up. Is it possible that some of the remaining nine hotels could be remodeled and shift to serve tourists? If we lose hotels, will the other ones raise their prices?

Alternatively, are there scenarios where the market prices go down and then we are stuck with a higher price? Is there a way for us to create better and/or cheaper options than the Sunset Hotel option? In order to understand the benefits of this proposal, we should consider how the market will change over the next three years.

Questions and Concerns

Clarify Benefits of Onsite Services

I’d like to have more specific details on how the 30 percent allocation will be implemented. What scope of services can we expect? What impact will it have?

Does the Plan Allow for a Better Option?

Even if the plan’s benefits outweigh the disadvantages, we should weigh the opportunity costs of other potential options. Is this plan mutually exclusive with even better options that could arise over the next three years. What are the odds that those options will arise and how much better are they?

Past Efforts

Over the years, there have been efforts to provide Hudson-based solutions. A 2012 proposal to place a homeless shelter at State and Seventh met opposition. So did a 2010 proposal to locate a somewhat similar facility at Warren and Fifth. Similarly in 2009, Gossips of Rivertown reports “when the county advanced the idea of using the St. Charles Hotel for transitional housing, the Common Council passed a moratorium on the creation of new transitional housing and homeless shelters in Hudson.”

Seek Better Options

We should seek other offers and see if there are any better options. The County should issue a request for proposals (RFP). We could complete the process in about four months and then make side by side evaluations. This process would help ensure that we are committing to the best option available. Alternatively, the County can skip the request for proposal if Galvan is determined to be a sole provider. At this point, I think it’s worth to take the extra time to do an RFP. It will have the added benefit of establishing financial transparency.

Contract or Not?

We should realize that some parts of the proposal could move forward without a contract. DSS does not have contracts with the other hotel providers and doesn’t need a contract to refer homeless people to the Sunset. The contract would establish fixed rates, consistent amenities, the 30 percent for onsite services, and a reciprocal right of first refusal.

Evaluating the Project

If the project’s benefits outweigh the harms and it does not hinder better options, than we should move forward on the project.

Limited Solution

The Sunset Hotel is only 24 rooms and will serve 24 to 30 people at a time. Unless the need is drastically reduced, we will continue to use other hotels as transitional housing. Whether or not we move forward with the Sunset Hotel proposal, we still need to address bigger problems. We need to address the causes of homelessness as well as better serve people while they are homeless. Nonetheless, with this proposal we may have an opportunity to provide better services to some homeless people at a similar cost to our current spending.

Contact Me

Get in touch and tell me what you think of the proposal.