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Homeless, Not Hopeless

Shelters are bulging and homelessness isn’t going away, but there are services out there to help some find a road to salvation

by Kevin Wheeler on April 4, 2013

The Capital Region was shocked on March 3, a frigid but otherwise relatively quiet Sunday evening, as reports started to filter through various media outlets that New York state trooper Rodney Smith, a 15-year veteran of the force, had been stabbed in the neck with a steak knife after he stopped a teenager, Eric Green, in the Empire State Plaza.

According to preliminary testimony, Green approached Smith in the concourse and inquired about local shelters. Smith responded with a request to see Green’s identification and, within seconds, was stabbed multiple times and forced into a struggle to retain control of his firearm. Green bolted, and Smith was left on the cold, tile floor of the Empire State Plaza.

The following weeks proved tough for Green, who was found after a short manhunt and promptly charged with attempted murder, aggravated assault of a police officer and two counts of robbery. After a brief hospitalization, Smith is expected to make a full recovery.

Green, whom some accounts have described as a “transient youth” and a former Albany High School student, pled not guilty to all charges, but if convicted on all counts he may spend the rest of his life behind bars. Could something have been done before this incident to change the path of this young man, who appeared “troubled” in recent court appearances?

 

An unsure path: A client from the Sheridan Hollow Drop-in Center heads for uptown Albany.

Just days after the Plaza incident, the Coalition for the Homeless released a report indicating that an average of 50,000 people slept in city-run shelters every night in January, and that number represents a 19 percent increase over reports from the previous year. It does not include people who live on the streets. There is no clear-cut answer to why people become homeless, or how to solve the problem of homelessness. It’s evident that homelessness is on the rise—but it’s not solely a “big city” problem. There are many agencies here in Albany attempting to change the lives of those that have no homes, or are in danger of losing them, on a daily basis. But they can only help those who are willing to accept their aid.

A matter of blocks from the Empire State Plaza, and relatively close to the Smith stabbing, is the Sheridan Hollow Drop-in Center, a vital facet of Albany’s Interfaith Partnership for the Homeless, founded in 1984. Here, homeless and needy individuals can stop by and receive clothing, a meal, and access to laundry and bathing facilities, among other services.

More important, though, this center also provides aid regarding crisis intervention, goal planning, and assistance with life skills such as budgeting, self-advocacy, and resource exploration, and provides referrals to service providers. “Rather than providing a temporary solution to homelessness by offering shelter and food, we work to eliminate the causes of homelessness by teaching life skills and empowering individuals and families to become self-sufficient,” says Eric Guzman, marketing coordinator at Interfaith Partnership for the Homeless.

The Interfaith Partnership also feels strongly about fighting the issue of homelessness on an individual level. “Residents of Albany need to be more informed that these issues do exist, right in their backyard,” says Guzman. “Homeless shelters are always in need of volunteers, donors, and awareness ambassadors that will help fulfill each respective mission of fighting homelessness.” And for those in need of more long-term support, the Interfaith Partnership also runs an emergency shelter that holds a maximum of 30 people with an occupancy rate of 98 percent throughout the year, and it serves everybody age 18 and older, though mostly are over age 30.

“Men, women, and children can be homeless, even young people and elderly people, individuals with college degrees and individuals that haven’t finished high school,” says Guzman. “No matter where they are or what their story is, it’s important to get them the services they need to get back on their feet.”

However, despite its openness regarding background, this Interfaith Partnership requires each potential lodger to go through Albany’s Homeless and Travelers Aid Society, or HATAS. This system encompasses homelessness prevention, emergency shelter, housing, and mental health programs. Last year, the organization served more than 11,000 households.

“The biggest way Albany can help its homeless is by giving HATAS more funding,” says William Moore. “HATAS is the backbone of homeless care in Albany.” Moore, 45, is homeless and says that he loves HATAS. Dressed in a gray sweater and a black flat-cap, he speaks with urgency while gesticulating with his hands. “HATAS is the number-one advocate for homeless people in Albany,” he continues. “They’re trying to get me un-homeless.”

Why is Moore homeless? “I’m an alcoholic, my parents were alcoholics,” he says. “I’ve been using hard drugs since I was 12.”

There is more. Back in the ’80s, Moore, then a Manhattan resident, was a crack shot with a sniper rifle during his tenure with the Marines. But he was dishonorably discharged for drug-related offenses, imprisoned for 144 months, and sent to a halfway house in Albany. His wife followed him, and he has lived here ever since.

“Nah, it wasn’t the dirty urine that made it dishonorable,” says Moore, referring to a failed drug test. “I got caught selling eight ounces of marijuana on the base.”

After leaving the post-prison halfway house, Moore “relapsed like hard-body” and has continued his destructive habits ever since—the exact reason why today he panhandles at bus stops along Central Avenue.

However, Moore’s relationship with drugs culminated before joining the Marines. At age 19, “I was makin’ $170,000 a week,” he says. Moore sold crack cocaine in Manhattan during the ’80s, embodying the get-rich-quick ethos that pervaded the decade’s infamous crack epidemic—a time when crime rates soared in American cities, opening new doors for many from humble backgrounds, which included Moore and his two brothers. According to Moore, his siblings are still millionaire kingpins.

Moore says he lived the high life with his brothers for a few years—that he even bought a new Porsche. But his extreme habits eventually wore on his family, and they have since cut ties with him.

“They’ve tried helping me,” he says. “I’m not trustworthy.” And he “smoked” that car along with everything he had, prompting his stint in the military.

“It’s amazing what you can fit in your crack pipe,” he adds. “And there’s always room for more.”

Moore, however, is not only dependent on drugs—he has discerning taste in the arts and says he cannot get enough. “I love art, I love musicianship, I love the electric guitar,” he says. “You ever hear of Nirvana? Kurt Cobain, man. I live by his lyrics: ‘Just because you’re paranoid don’t mean they’re not after you.’” These lyrics, from Nirvana’s “Territorial Pissings,” fit Moore’s outlook on homeless living in Albany, which he describes as a “state of savagery.”

“You sometimes have to fend these people off, especially when 75 percent of ’em are drunk or addicted,” says Moore, referring to his fellow homeless. “Every fuckin’ day,” he says, he fears for his life.

Today, Moore works with his HATAS representative, Rachel Goldman, and they have concocted a plan to get Moore clean: Moore will visit Belvedere services, an “immersive” brain injury program, four days a week.

 

Working on solutions: (l-r) A client at Interfaith Partnership talks with Guzman about his day.

Other homeless citizens have been luckier, less dependent, like Joe, a big man with a small voice, cheap sunglasses, and a beard similar to Santa’s. He was once a gas station attendant, but he says his landlord kicked him out four years ago to make room for her pregnant daughter. Joe, 50, then lost his job, and has roamed the streets, slinging his homemade dream catchers ever since.

“We live in an imperfect world,” says Joe, who declined to give his last name. “Not everyone has the necessary resources to survive.” But Joe’s current monetary resources do not come from his dream catchers, which sell for $10 apiece. Instead, Joe frequents certain spots, on roadsides or outside supermarkets, and simply sits, holding a plastic cup and a cardboard sign that reads, “HOMELESS,” in big, black letters.

“This is a trade secret: I have a couple spots, but you have to use strategy, like go on Friday or at night,” he says. “I don’t wanna get in trouble with the IRS.”

His strategy works, but it is not without its setbacks.

“Sometimes you get people who throw stuff and yell from their cars but would never approach you face-to-face,” Joe says. “I consider them cowards.”

The police, too, can prove troublesome.

“Some cars slow down when they see me and look for change,” says Joe. “Cops call this ‘interfering with the flow of traffic,’ so they’ll tell me to move along.”

Joe makes enough money to feed himself and occasionally spend nights in motel rooms, especially during winter, when “people are generally more sympathetic and generous,” he says.

But Joe’s success has attracted the attention of a few other homeless, giving Joe a taste of the “state of savagery” described by Moore. Last year, Joe was sitting at a regular spot when another homeless man approached him. “He started yelling at me and getting in my face,” Joe recalls. “He said he was gonna shoot me. He seemed to think he owned the spot, he thought I was taking the money people were saving for him.”

The encounter didn’t end after a shouting match; Joe’s attacker came with a friend who punched Joe in the eye, sparking a small scuffle that ended when police arrived.

“I could have taken him out, but I didn’t want trouble at the spot,” Joe says.

Despite its occasional dangers, Joe sees no way out of his situation, and he doesn’t really mind. He has never even tried to get outside help. “I don’t like dealing with them,” says Joe, referring to Albany’s aid services. “I like to do my own thing, I like to travel around.”

But there is one dream Joe’s homelessness will never allow him to realize. “I always wanted to open my own little store, just like a convenience store or coffee shop,” he says. “I almost did, but I never had quite enough money.”

 

Though some of Albany’s homeless, like Moore, have embraced HATAS as a primary source of help, others, like Joe, thrive on the freedom homelessness provides. Homeless youths—youths like Eric Green—might not feel comfortable approaching a large organization such as HATAS for support and housing. This is where Equinox comes in.

A needed outlet: The Sheridan Hollow Drop-in Center provides relief for Albany’s less fortunate.

“When teens hear the word ‘shelter’ they sometimes hesitate,” says Melissa McKown, manager of Equinox’s Transitional Living Program. “Shelters generally aren’t seen as the nicest or safest places—but they shouldn’t be afraid to hear ‘shelter.’”

Equinox is an Albany-based organization that prides itself in helping homeless and runaway youths who do not need to contact HATAS before accessing aid. It is divided between two distinct programs: the Transitional Living Program, which serves ages 18-21, and the Equinox House for Youth, which helps youths ages 13-17. In 2012, the Equinox House for Youth served 107 youths, and the Transitional Living Program served 35, plus five babies.

Upon entering the Transitional Living Program building, visitors are greeted by a colorful mural that symbolizes the journey of wayward youths at Equinox. It begins with a large, violent tornado and ends with a bridge to puffy, white clouds—the impossible rendered possible. And along the path is a bright light bulb bathed in yellow incandescence, representing knowledge. Additionally, two gold keys seem to glisten against a blue backdrop, representing—what else?—apartment keys.

Each step in the mural mirrors what the Transitional Living Program strives to do, from encouraging schooling, to teaching life skills like cooking, budgeting, appointment-making, even renting an apartment—all in the hopes of ensuring a stable and healthy adult life. Each youth’s experience at Equinox is tailored to their personal needs.

“When these kids come in, you’re holding their hand; you might even be walking in front of them. Then you’ll be holding their pinky,” says McKown, “but by the end of the program, they’re walking in front of you. The youth that we work with show me what strength, courage, resiliency, intelligence, drive and persistence really are.”

C. is one such youth. He moved from Puerto Rico to Troy at age 6, but his parents kicked him out of the house around Thanksgiving 2012. He then went from friend’s house to friend’s house, doing minor jobs and collecting cans before eventually landing at Joseph’s House, a shelter in Troy, where a roommate recommended Equinox. He has lived at an Equinox-rented location for the past two months. “It feels nice to call a place home again,” says C., though he admits the curfews can be annoying.

A normal day with Equinox involves a 5:45 AM wake-up, and then it’s off to Troy High School by 8 AM, followed by a meeting with his Equinox case adviser. C. continued school despite his homelessness, though his grades suffered. “I was so worried about jobs that school wasn’t my main priority,” he says. However, C. is passionate about learning.

“I love school, I love all my teachers,” says C. Some favorite teachers include Ms. Wilson, an English teacher, and Ms. Buckley, a history teacher, both of whom he says were understanding and glad to help him catch up.

If one thing has remained constant throughout C.’s life, it’s his Christian faith.

“One of the big words I live by is ‘faith,’” he says. “Having faith in myself brought me a long way from where I was going.”

C. insists that other transient youth should “take the help while it’s there…use it to the full extent.” In the future, C. hopes to attend college and learn about heating and cooling systems, and eventually find a union job—while maybe playing some lacrosse on the side. He also hopes to prove his parents wrong. “I’ll return to my parents someday,” he says. “I’ll show them I can be something.”