By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special To AllOTSEGO.com
ONEONTA – Gabrielle Argo and Jennifer Schuman have a plan to make sure that no one will face the bitter cold nights alone.
“We were seeing people coming into the Fox Hospital Emergency Room trying to get out of the cold,” said Argo, the hospital spokesman. “But that takes away staff and services for those people who need resources, and it sparked a conversation.”
The Fox Hospital Ethics Board sought to address the problem and created the Caring for the Homeless Collaborative, which includes members from Opportunities For Otsego, Catholic Charities, Family Resource Network, United Way and other local churches and organizations.
“We wanted to know what services we could help provide that would be of assistance to this community,” said Schuman, Fox’s medical staff affairs coordinator.
Now after a year of meetings, they’ve unveiled their first initiative – creating a “warming station” where anyone – regardless of economic status – can come in on Code Blue nights where the temperatures drop below freezing.
As it is now, when the National Weather Service calls a “Code Blue” OFO will get hotel rooms for people who are homeless or who lack adequate heating in their homes.
The warming station will be presented as a first possible action step when the Collaborative board meets Dec. 16.
Schuman said some people may not go to the shelter to get the voucher, either because they don’t know about it or may be facing other barriers.
But the warming station would be a supplement to the program for those who might not be able to get the vouchers or who find themselves suddenly in the cold with no place to get warm overnight.
“Ideally, we would have cots and blankets, maybe some coffee and tea,” said Schuman. “And it would be open all night.”
Additionally, they would work with local organizations to make sure people at the warming station know how to access free meals and social services, and use those as a place to gather people who might need a warm place to stay. “For example, we might go to the Lord’s Table and let people know that the Warming Station is open, maybe offer transportation, and in the morning, direct them to continuing services.
Several potential locations have been identified, but now, they want to hear from the community, and will hold a public information session on Monday, Dec. 16 in the Fox Hospital conference room, where they will present their plan, a budget and seek input from the community.
Code Blue funding comes from the state in the form of reimbursements; the task force is looking to come up with the start-up funds.
“We’re hoping to have it available by the end of the season,” said Schuman.
The Task Force also wants to begin looking at how many people are homeless in the county in order to better serve them.
“We don’t have a hard number on homelessness,” said Schuman. “The last study said there were between 50-60 people, but it’s difficult to count people sleeping under a bridge, or crashing on friends couches, or walking around WalMart all night to keep warm. We know it’s a larger number than that.”
For children, homelessness is defined by living at more than four addresses in a year. “They might be living with adults who aren’t their parents, like a friend of the family,” said Schuman.
Some are dealing with addictions or mental illnesses that make it difficult to remain in a stable residence.
“People think of homelessness as that guy begging for change on the sidewalk,” said Argo. “We ignore him. But it’s more than that, and we want to bring that to the community to see.”