Homeless in the land of plenty

Part One: A conversation with assemblywoman Aileen Gunther and her staff

By TED WADDELL
Posted 2/5/20

REGION — My home is a castoff cardboard box. My food is from a dumpster in an alleyway.

I am a lonely veteran of honored service to my county who has fallen on hard times without a place to …

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Homeless in the land of plenty

Part One: A conversation with assemblywoman Aileen Gunther and her staff

Posted

REGION — My home is a castoff cardboard box. My food is from a dumpster in an alleyway.

I am a lonely veteran of honored service to my county who has fallen on hard times without a place to live or food to fill my belly.

I am a single mother of two children, residing in a roach-infested apartment—not because I want to, but because it’s all I can afford.

I am someone suffering from mental illness who takes shelter in a tent in the woods, a vacated bungalow colony or abandoned hospital building.

I find a small measure of warmth during the frigid months of a harsh and unrelenting winter by sleeping in a warming center, surrounded by people who are “living rough.”

Seemingly unnoticed as those more fortunate scurry home to a warm hearth, I try not to freeze to death.

I am one of the estimated more than half-a-million Americans who are labeled homeless in the “land of plenty.”

The River Reporter recently sat down with Assemblywoman Aileen M. Gunther in her office in Monticello (100th District), along with staffers legislative aide Matthew McPhillips and director of constituent support services Rachel Steingart, to discuss the state of homelessness in the local area.

“We walk the streets to see what’s going on, what’s happening,” said Gunther, noting that on such a journey last year, they visited the Heritage Inn on Broadway in the Village of Monticello, which for years was used by the Sullivan County Division of Health and Family Services to house folks down on their luck.

“We looked at, and it wasn’t fit for human life. There was stuff coming off the pipes, dampness and mold, and two babies in one of the rooms. The filth was unbelievable.”
Shortly thereafter, the structure—which dates back to 1806—was determined unsafe for human habitation by the local building inspector, although the owner of the building reportedly said she was hoping to re-open it after it was repaired.

But in the meantime, several tenants were left homeless.

“For years we’ve had people in hotels,” Gunther said, noting the support of county manager Josh Potosek and health commissioner Joe Todora has been instrumental in addressing the problems related to finding housing for those without.

Gunther also praised the efforts of several other organizations and individuals in helping to combat the problem: Kathy Krieiter, program administrator/director, and staff at the Sullivan County Federation for the Homeless (SCFH); Sandra Gerry of Sullivan Renaissance; Martin Colavito, program coordinator for the St. John’s Street School Community Hub; and local churches and synagogues.

“We don’t have a lot of ability in the area [to house people], and we don’t have a ton of people working for the department of health,” she added.

As a case in point, Gunther said her office was recently contacted by a woman in dire need of adequate and safe housing.

“She came in and said she was placed in a motel alongside somebody that was a prostitute, she was very frightened,” recalled Gunther.

“The issue of housing is a matter of checks and balances, after all, it’s taxpayer money. There are quality-of-life issues and children involved.

“One lady we met was living in a garage with no heat,” added Gunther, noting that there are numerous unoccupied houses in the area that are off the tax rolls, and that in some of the public housing “the standard of living is such that you wouldn’t want to... go thereself.”

According to McPhillips, homeless people used to live in an abandoned bungalow colony behind the district office, until the village tore it down.

And before that, there were reports of people living in the woods in back of what used to be Apollo Plaza.

“I got quite an education on what’s going on here,” said McPhillips, adding that the trio recently saw traces of homeless living in an old hospital building just up the road from their office.

As part of the Assemblywoman’s fight to help the homeless, her office recently distributed more than 800 coats to help folks keep warm in the winter.

In the local school systems, Gunther noted that teachers often chip in their own money to buy backpacks for kids whose parents are struggling financially, and “send the kids home with their backpacks full of food for the weekends.

“Unless you go down and dirty, you don’t see what’s going on around you,” said Gunther, and to get things done, she and her staff are “very, very squeaky wheels around here. We’re no experts, but we’re pretty good about connecting people to the help they need.

“It’s heartbreaking to talk to different people, stories of folks living in the woods, in tents and abandoned buildings, your heart would bleed,” said Gunther.

Part two of “Homeless in the Land of the Plenty,” a conversation with Sullivan County Federation for the Homeless Director Kathy Krieter, will be in next week's issue.

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