Housing the Homeless
Would a partnership between Columbia County and the Galvan Foundation provide better services to homeless people?
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). 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.
In 2017, temporary housing for Columbia County’s homeless cost over $900,000. Given the 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.
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.
Galvan’s Proposal For a Better Facility
The Galvan Foundation is opening a hotel that could serve the homeless population. DSS and Galvan are discussing a five 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 April 2018.
The Sunset will have 25 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. An agency with experience working with homeless people in Columbia County will be hired to manage the service and DSS will assist in hiring the providers. These 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. Onsite office space for the service providers will be provided.
The room cost is still being discussed. It will be market rate, likely toward the upper end of the current range. If DSS pays $85 per person per night for full capacity, then around $200,000 per year would be allocated by Galvan toward the onsite services. Presumably the services would help reduce other DSS costs.
The contract would create a reciprocal commitment for five 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 we 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 five year period.
The plan provides more and better quality rooms. It eases the current scarcity in quality, affordable rooms.
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.
Offering on site services could be a big benefit to people needing temporary housing.
Questions and Concerns
There is no firm agreement or finalized text. That means there is need to clarify and evaluate details.
We need to make sure the reality of this project lives up to its promise. Is the Galvan Foundation able to run a hotel and are they able to provide effective wraparound services for homeless people? We need clear language that guarantees that elements are implemented as expected and remain effective. Contractual language should be specific, include contingencies, and have termination clauses. Consider details around site conditions, insurance and liability, cleaning services and maintenance, and square footage.
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?
No cost has been set yet. Not only do we need to finalize a room rate, I’d also like to see a break-even cost projection. For example, if we prioritize placements at the Sunset at $85 per night, would County costs go up or down? I’d like to see a few different projections based on different scenarios of need.
Predicting Hotel Costs
The contract is a five year commitment and locks in the cost and facility. 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 five years.
Does the Plan Cause Harm?
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.
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.
Does the Plan Allow for a Better Option?
Even if the plan’s benefits outweigh the disadvantages, we should keep the door open for a still better option. For example, the contract should allow for a future shelter in Hudson or the surrounding area.
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. We can’t make this evaluation until we have taken steps and answered questions described above.
The Sunset Hotel is only 25 rooms and will serve 25 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.
Get in touch and tell me what you think of the proposal.
The issue will likely be discussed at the next Health & Human Services Committee meeting.
Tuesday, February 20 at 4 PM
401 State Street
Note, this article was updated on 2/9/18 to reflect new information and conversations.