By Kevin Limiti
Opportunities for Otsego and the Oneonta Police Department are exploring strategies to get homeless people in the area sheltered now that winter is here.
An executive order issued by former Governor Andrew Cuomo says that after temperatures go below 32 degrees, the homeless must be sheltered.
Catholic Charities, the Main Street Baptist Church, Otsego County Department of Social Services, and other religious groups opened a new warming station in Oneonta in March 2021 to allow those outside to warm up during the cold weather.
Homeless who are found in other areas of Otsego County, including Cooperstown, are typically taken to the warming station in Oneonta.
Located at 189 Chestnut Street, the warming station has been running to capacity every night, according to OFO. It is open daily from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. to anyone older than age 18.
Oneonta Police Chief Chris Witzenberg said the Department of Social Services and Opportunities for Otsego have been working with OPD to try to shelter people who are outside. Many, the chief said, refuse assistance.
“There’s really nothing we can do,” Chief Witzenberg said. “We can’t force them do anything unless there’s a court order.”
Chief Witzenberg said OPD created a community solutions panel to help deal with some of the issues related to homelessness in Oneonta.
Opportunities for Otsego CEO Dan Maskin said affordable housing remains the greater issue.
“By far, the number one reason people go into our homeless shelter is because they’ve been evicted for non-payment of rent,” Mr. Maskin said, explaining that eviction moratoriums, which went into effect during the pandemic “are starting to relax.”
“Housing — and Otsego County is a microcosm of that — is becoming more expensive,” Mr. Maskin said. “Affordable housing projects take a long time and they are unbelievably expensive.”
He said problems with evictions were increasing.
“It’s quite alarming,” he said. “There’s no real homeless funding at the federal or state level. They basically say ‘we leave it up to the local municipalities to figure out.’” He said this puts a lot of pressure on local governments to deal with homelessness.
“In Otsego County, we’re fortunate because we have two solid resources such as the homeless shelter and warming station,” Mr. Maskin said, but also noted it wasn’t a true solution. “These are really bandaids.”
OFO also runs a homeless shelter in Oneonta.
William Rivera, OFO crisis intervention director, said the warming station houses about four or five people each night. Any more than that are sent to local area motels, facilitated by the Otsego County DSS and area non-profits such as OFO.
OFO’s Emergency Housing Assistance Program last year aided 56 households and provided temporary housing to 65 people. Some 150 took advantage of the EHAP food pantry.
Mr. Rivera said it is difficult to quantify the number of homeless in the area because they do not have an outreach program which looks for homeless people. He also stressed it wasn’t important to focus on the number of homeless because, according to him, one homeless person in a community is one too many.
The eviction moratorium in New York was extended in September to January 15, 2022.