Housing shortage and opioids combine to create Sullivan County’s greatest crisis

The new legislature must act to protect families, grand jury report says

Posted 1/26/24

SULLIVAN COUNTY, NY — A man caring for a baby girl had been at the Knights Inn for weeks, living among active drug dealers. It was here, just six months earlier, that an infant died from a …

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Housing shortage and opioids combine to create Sullivan County’s greatest crisis

The new legislature must act to protect families, grand jury report says


SULLIVAN COUNTY, NY — A man caring for a baby girl had been at the Knights Inn for weeks, living among active drug dealers. It was here, just six months earlier, that an infant died from a malign mix of fentanyl and xylazine.

The man said he’d connected with the Sullivan County Department of Social Services (DSS) and is receiving food stamps. But, he said, he found the process confusing. A caseworker is supposed to be onsite at the motels that DSS leases, like the Knights Inn in Liberty, to help residents. But the man said he didn’t know about any caseworker. And there was no sign at the motel that a caseworker had an office there.

Another resident said he was hungry. He was not yet on food stamps. He too knew nothing about an onsite caseworker who could help him. 

“There’s just no hope there,” Jacqueline Van Gordon, a mother and recovering addict, told the River Reporter. “Crack, roaches, and bedbugs” are commonplace in the motels DSS leases, she said.

Van Gordon was born and raised in Sullivan County and currently attends SUNY Orange. She depends on the county’s social services. She knows people who live in the motels, though she hasn’t stayed in one herself. Her housing arrangement, through  rehabilitative support services, a DSS affiliate, is not as dire as that but still bad, she said.

During the River Reporter’s recent visit to the Knights Inn, residents talked about its heavily soiled carpets, the loud music, the dirty and dingy halls, the foul smells.   

“Do not allow Social Services to put people in these hotels,” Van Gordon said.

A grand jury agrees. “There should be a complete rethinking of the use of motels to house vulnerable populations in Sullivan County,” said its summary. The damning 100-page report, issued in early January, was written in response to the death of Akasha Luvert, the infant who died at the Knights Inn last May.

Why motels are dangerous

The grand jury report says the baby’s father was asleep in the motel when the baby become unresponsive. On the floor were a tin foil wrapper with residue and a metal pipe for smoking narcotics.

Sullivan County places women and others suffering from substance abuse disorder into motels as part of emergency housing, the report says, adding: “These are the same motels that incarcerated individuals are released to, individuals in some circumstances that were charged and convicted of selling narcotics, and the same motels where substance abuse in rampant. Sending mothers and their positive toxicology babies to sleep in rooms right next door to their drug dealers  in some instances is not setting up the mother and the baby for success. In addition, the infrastructure inside of the motel is not suitable for raising a newborn. The motel rooms contain a small sink, a shower, a microwave, and are often unsanitary.”

The report notes that the county has the architectural plans for a shelter, but it has not yet been built.

“I would love for Sullivan County not to be involved with hotels,” John Liddle, Sullivan County’s DSS commissioner, told the River Reporter. “I fully concur with the grand jury’s recommendation on that.”

He said the legislature signed a contract with the Knights Inn in 2022 because they believed it would save money.  Liddle thought the savings could be as much as $161,000 because of inflation and increased rates for short-term rentals and hotels.

But the county’s attempt to curb homelessness with motel rooms isn’t working. Last year, Sullivan County’s eviction rate surpassed all but six other counties in New York, according to the Cornell ILR Eviction Filings Dashboard for New York State.

“These are big policy issues for the county, and by policy I mean spending issues and decisions,” Liddle said. “My goal is to get more people into permanent housing. That’s what all the studies that are out there today say that’s where you should be going. That’s where the better outcomes are in terms of health, in terms of mental health, beating poverty, is getting people into actual housing — not shelters or hotels.”

More caseworkers needed

Liddle told the River Reporter that a caseworker manages about 25 clients out of an office at the Knights Inn. But, he said, the caseworker does not work under an open door policy. DSS first needs to “refer them in,” he said.

“In our contract with the Knights Inn they provided that office for us to use,” Liddle said. But he said the caseworkers end up not spending a lot of time there. “Because they’re out with the clients, taking them to appointments, you might not see them much in the building. It just gives them a base to work out of, but the nature of that work is they’re moving around a fair amount.”

Their work involves helping clients obtain documents, like Social Security cards, that many people without residences don’t have, Liddle said. He said caseworkers drive their clients to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get their driver’s licenses, and whatever else is needed “to get folks to a point where they can be self-sufficient.”

Liddle hopes to expand the number of the caseworkers through Honor, a not-for-profit organization in Middletown under contract to provide Orange County with services for people in need, such as housing, food, counseling, crisis intervention, and vocational help. 

A double crisis

The Knights Inn sits at the intersection of two crises: opioids and housing. The opioid crisis worsened during the pandemic years, when isolation and job losses presented added hardships for those fighting addition. The housing crisis was put on pause during the pandemic, when states imposed moratoriums on evictions. But with those protections gone and evictions soaring, residents looking for a place to live have fewer options. 

At the January 18 meeting of the county legislature, District 5 legislator Cat Scott said she and Liddle discussed the eviction problem. “People don’t understand what their rights are, so sometimes people find out way too late, right, that they had certain rights,” she said. She recommended bringing a human rights commissioner back to the county.

But the problem extends beyond a better-informed public. At the meeting, Julie Diesher, the county’s human resources commissioner, said of the 26 complaints her office received this year, most are “in and around housing concerns.” 

Everything comes down to the legislature, holder of the purse strings.

The grand jury’s conclusion that the legislature must act is noteworthy. Its long and horrifying compilation of Child Protective Service cases involving opioid abuse ends with the conclusion that the use of motels must be completely rethought. 

‘Almost everything is housing’

Shachi Pandey, founder of Metropolitan Urban Design Workshop, and lead partner in developing a resilience plan with Sullivan County, said five themes emerged from the data they collected. “Housing was by far the number one issue,” she said, with affordability, availability, and an aging housing stock presenting the biggest impediments to solving the problem. The data show that nearly half of Sullivan County residents are burdened by housing costs, which means more than 30 percent of their income goes to housing.

Tina Lund, founder of Urbanomics, also worked on the resilience plan. She chimed in: “The biggest issue we found, which connects to almost everything is housing.”

She said real estate trends are driving up costs for renters. “While the summer folks are a great boon to the economy, that external real estate pressure really drives up housing costs for year-round residents,” Lund said. “If a property owner already has a rental unit, and they can make as much in a month as they do in a whole year, it’s a huge, huge impact, and a huge, huge pressure, and it’s really driving up general rental costs as a whole.”

At the semi-annual Drug Task Force meeting in December, its co-chair Melissa Stickle said the housing crisis doesn’t just affect those who are homeless and or struggling with addiction but the very workforce needed to ease the opioid crisis. 

“We have a whole host of services that can be available in the community, but if you don’t have anyone to provide them, that’s a big issue,” Stickle said. “So the conversation has been not only about attracting a workforce to the county, but having housing for the workforce.”

Community activist Sandra Cuellar Oxford summed it: Sullivan County needs a “rural housing revolution,” she said.

There is, however, much hope invested in the new county legislature, which was joined by five newcomers on January 1.

“I’m really encouraged about where we as a county are headed now,” Liddle said. “New legislators are working to set up groups.”

He said he’s working with the county manager, Joshua Potosek, and planning commissioner, Heather Brown, “to bring stakeholders together, people who can develop property, people who want to invest in the community. There are people interested in building housing in Sullivan County in a way that is cooperative. It’s going to take all those different sectors working together to make sure it’s right.”

Editor's note: This story has been corrected from the original, which incorrectly stated that Jacqueline Van Gordon was residing in housing through Catholic Charities.

Knights Inn, fentanyl, xylazine, Sullivan County Department of Social Services (DSS), Jacqueline Van Gordon, Akasha Luvert, motels, John Liddle, evictions, Cat Scott, Shachi Pandey, Metropolitan Urban Design Workshop, Tina Lund, Urbanomics, Amanda Ward, Melissa Stickle, Sandra Cuellar Oxford, Joshua Potosek


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