by Jeff Marinelli
::: I got this e-mail from a reader after I posted my intention to write about homeless people in our city here at The Ordinary Citizen:
"I am looking forward to your next article regarding homeless people in Canandaigua. Just last week I discovered there really is such a problem here in Canandaigua.
I walk later in the evening with a walking partner. One night she happened to notice someone on the ground where the old Canandaigua Inn once stood. We went over to him and asked him if he was ok. He muttered a few words. We then walked up to the police station to ask the police to check on this individual. An officer was in the parking lot talking to a sheriff. He said ok he would check on the man. We decided to wait and see what happened. After 30 minutes or so I called the police station and reported this again and they said they would send someone and to watch for them. About 15 minutes later, I flagged down an officer and it just happened to be the first officer we had approached earlier. He shined a light on this man and said "Oh its just Ken. He is homeless and doesn't like to be bothered. We leave him alone."
I was shocked. What would happen to this man if it was much colder and he is just left there? Later we spoke with another police officer and he said there are many of these men around. He stated a lot were VA patients. Again I was shocked. I grew up here and never realized this. It would be nice if there were a place that these people could go. What a wake up this was for me. The community of Canandaigua needs to be aware of this. Thanks for hearing me out..."
Homeless people in Canandaigua... where are they? More importantly, who are they? Are there really a lot of them, or is it just 'Ken'?
I show up unannounced at the Gleaner's Kitchen, behind St. John's Episcopal Church on Main Street in Canandaigua. Rich or poor, people need to eat every day, so this seems like a good place to start. The Gleaner's Kitchen feeds people for free, no questions asked. Whatever image comes to mind when you say 'soup kitchen' doesn't fit here. The dining room looks like a school cafeteria, airy, bright and very clean. There's a paper placemat and real silverware wrapped in a napkin at every seat. It's obvious that dignity is served here, not just food.
A volunteer walks by carrying a fresh floral centerpiece. There's one on every table. The door is open to the kitchen, and 7 or 8 people are bustling around in there. I don't know what they're cooking today, but it smells delicious. A staff member approaches and asks if I've come to eat. "Thank you, no" I tell her. "I'm doing some research for an article I'm writing on homeless people here in Canandaigua and I'd like to know if there's a staff member I can talk to." "You'll want to speak to the director", she says. "He's not here now, but let me take your phone number and I'll have him call you."
Meals are being served, and the dining room fills up. This is clearly a social occasion as well as a meal. I see people talking and laughing with each other as they eat. Along with the meal there's a big bowl of fresh fruit and decorated cakes for dessert. I go outside and see three men who have finished their lunch, standing and talking. I walk over and introduce myself.
"I'm writing an article on homeless people and I wonder if you’d answer a few questions for me", I say. Their eyebrows go up as they smile. One of the men is a staff member at the Gleaners. He doesn't say much, but listens intently as we talk. He either nods emphatically or shakes his head sorrowfully as he follows the conversation. I turn my attention to the other two fellows. Both men appear to be in their early thirties. Their clothes, while worn, are neat. They are clean shaven and do not smell. The first man I've shaken hands with has one of the perennial problems of poor people, quite a few missing teeth. I ask them: "Are there a lot of homeless people in Canandaigua?
Both jump in. "Oh, yes." "Sure are." Staff member nods. I say: "I've had many people tell me that homeless people live in the woods somewhere out behind Big Lots. Is that true?"
The first fellow says: "There were some people living by the railroad tracks over there too" (He waves westward) "but I don't know if they're there anymore." His friend chimes in: "Yeah, you go back in the woods way behind Chappel's Junkyard there's a big tent city. Lots of 'em back in there."
The first man continues: "I was homeless myself for 10 months last year. And I always had a job. I always worked. But mos' times I pay my child support and pay my bills and there was nothin' left for me." His friend becomes visibly upset. "It ain't right" he says. "There ought to be some program or something to help people get back on their feet."
We finish our chat on a cordial note. I thank them very much for taking the time to talk to me. Both men seem honestly pleased that I wanted to know their opinion.
The director calls me later that day. He seems like a nice man and patiently answers all my questions. I ask him how many meals his organization serves a month. "14 to 15 hundred" he says. "Somebody needs those meals around here." He tells me that his staff is trained to treat people with respect, so they don't ask any intruding questions to the people they feed. I continue: "Are there a lot of homeless people among your clientele?" "Yes there are", he answers. "It must be tough around here in the winter," I say. "It sure is" he replies. I get right down to it: "If you don't ask people questions, how do you know they're homeless?" "When people come in for a meal in the winter and they smell like a campfire, you know they live outdoors" he explains.
It's tough to argue with an answer like that. Our conversation shifts to the people on the edge... not homeless, but a single paycheck away from being homeless. He tells me that many of his clients are so poor even though they work that they'll eat at the Gleaners so they'll have enough money to buy food for the weekends. Some of his clients live just on the one meal a day they get there.
"What if I came in for a meal and I wanted help? What would you tell me?" He says he has a short list of resources he can refer people to, mostly churches and the Salvation Army. I want to know where his organization gets funding. "95 to 98% of our funding comes through donations... both money and food," he says. (In my work with Scouting, our annual Scouting for Food drive collected 60 to 70 tons of food in one day. Every bit of that food stays in our local communities)
I ask him if he uses the free venison program to help feed people. "Yes, we use it" he says. "Some people like it, others don't. If we use it, we have to tell people what they're eating... we'll usually mix it with hamburger in chili or a dish that has lots of spices." He says that even though they're hungry, some people just won't touch it.
(As a sidebar note to indicate the scope of the program, since 2000, over a quarter of a million pounds of venison have been collected and distributed in NYS. Because donated deer meat has to be professionally processed, the Venison Donation Coalition has coordinated a program where legally tagged and properly field-dressed deer can be taken to participating processors at no cost to the hunter or farmer. Meat cutters are recruited for participation and are paid to process the donated deer. The venison is processed and packaged according to the Environmental Conservation Law and the meat is picked up by Food Banks for delivery to soup kitchens, food pantries, and needy families throughout New York State.)
My final question deals with acknowledging the situation. He flat out tells me that in an area of perceived affluence like Canandaigua, most people dismiss the problem altogether. I thank him for his time. "Good Luck" he says.
In the e-mail I referred to at the beginning of this article, the police officer said: "A lot of them (homeless people) are VA patients." Just by the nature of their job, police officers are more likely than most of us to come in contact with some of these people and to know what’s really going on. Here’s where that trail leads.
Every VA Medical Center in the United States has a Health Care for Homeless Veterans program, and somebody to run it. The problem is so great that there's even a nationwide advocacy group, the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.
The VA website makes this claim, which I find astonishing:
"VA offers a wide array of special programs and initiatives specifically designed to help homeless veterans live as self-sufficiently and independently as possible. In fact, VA is the only Federal agency that provides substantial hands-on assistance directly to homeless persons. Although limited to veterans and their dependents, VA's major homeless-specific programs constitute the largest integrated network of homeless treatment and assistance services in the country."
The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans has this to say:
"The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) says homeless veterans are mostly males (2 % are females). The vast majorities are single, most come from poor, disadvantaged communities, 45% suffer from mental illness, and half have substance abuse problems. America’s homeless veterans have served in World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Lebanon, or the military’s anti-drug cultivation efforts in South America. Forty-seven percent of homeless veterans served during the Vietnam Era. More than 67% served our country for at least three years and 33% were stationed in a war zone. Although accurate numbers are impossible to come by... no one keeps national records on homeless veterans... the VA estimates that more than 299,321 veterans are homeless on any given night. More than half a million veterans experience homelessness over the course of a year. Conservatively, one out of every four homeless males who is sleeping in a doorway, alley, or box in our cities and rural communities has put on a uniform and served our country ... now they need America to remember them."
How do you like that? I am mortified to get even a glimpse of the extent of the problem. This is clearly a national embarrassment. And the government wants to close our VA because it says it doesn’t have any way to use the empty space?
I speak to one of the social workers involved in helping homeless vets. He says his job is to help vets find recovery and rehabilitation services, emergency housing, vocational training and mental health services. I ask him why so many of these vets end up homeless. He says: "Substance abuse and mental health issues are the biggest reasons. Some of these guys have physical problems, too, and for whatever reason, can’t get disability. Also around here, there aren’t many jobs that pay a living wage that these men can live on… no, lots of low-paying jobs and most don’t have any benefits." I ask how much luck he has helping these men turn their lives around. "We never give up on them," he says. "Most of the time it takes several tries, or more, before things start to fall into place. It’s usually one step forward and two steps back… but we’ll stick with them."
I ask him about the vacant space at the VA and why it can’t be used for homeless veterans. It is clearly a sore spot. "We’re working on it", he says tersely. "I think the City and the town might have something to do with it."
He is not inclined to discuss it further. I thank him for his time.
I had one more source I needed to talk to. I called Action for a Better Community, the Community Action Partnership in Ontario County at 120 N. Main in Canandaigua. Their agency serves all of Ontario County. The director was happy to talk to me about the work her agency does. "How big of a problem is it? Are there really a lot of homeless people in Canandaigua?" "It’s big", she says. She tells me that there are two tent cities of homeless people here, and that the people who live there move them around to stay under the radar. She asks me to please not go to try and find them. I assure her that I have no intention of invading anyone’s privacy. (Home is always what you make of it. During the Hoover administration, homeless veterans set up huge camps, "Hoovervilles," of cardboard and tarpaper shacks on the outskirts of Washington. Dubbed the ‘Bonus Army’, they had come to ask the government for relief. They were seeking payment of the Soldier’s Adjusted Compensation Bonus, which had been voted into law after WWI, but wasn’t due to be paid until 1945. If they could have gotten money then, each man would have received about 500 dollars. Many of those shacks had crude, hand-lettered signs that said: "God Bless Our Home." It was not meant as a joke. Home is what you make of it, all right.)
She tells me that annually, her agency will help between 190 and 200 homeless families. "And those are just the ones we know about… not all of them will come forward and ask for help." These are families, not homeless individuals… whose number here is much greater. CAP runs a free summer lunch program, for kids out of school who were enrolled in the school lunch program and would go without otherwise.
They also have a holiday gift program of clothes and toys for families in need. She says that they seek sponsors for these families. The program is underway now, and they’re still short of people to sponsor some of these folks. Federal funds provide the bulk of their operating expenses, and they rely on community donations for the other things they try to do. "There’s never enough money" she tells me. She notes that some of her clients work "one, two and even three minimum wage jobs to try to keep their families afloat, and they still don’t have enough to live on." She says that not all the families live in tents… many will live in a relative’s living room, or any place they can find space. But they have no home of their own, and no way to get one… they move around from place to place as they wear out their welcome.
I’m curious to hear what she thinks about the perception problem. She is blunt and matter-of-fact: "People here are usually not willing to acknowledge there’s a problem at all, and if they do acknowledge it, they assume that the churches take care of it, which absolves them of the responsibility to do something."
Sometimes the feedback I get from people centers around why the stuff I write about is so depressing. I don't mean it to be depressing, of course... I just think some of these topics are important, and that people should know about them. I'm basically an optimist; I always think that things could be better tomorrow.
I ask the director my last question: "Do you think there's any hope for the future for these people?" She replies: "As long as people here have some compassion, things will be OK."
I sure hope so.
The Open Door Mission offers these tips on helping homeless people.
Action for a Better Community can use some donations if you feel you'd like to include them in your list of charities.
The Gleaner's Kitchen in Canandaigua could also use our support.
Don't forget the Salvation Army's Red Kettles.