Letter to the Editor: City council is ostracizing the homeless population

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Dear Editor:

When we talk about mental health disorders, we typically do not further define the specific ailment. So, someone with mild anxiety or depression is not delineated differently from someone who is struggling with a more severe debilitating illness such as bipolar disorder or Psychosis associated with Schizophrenia. This is part of the reason that stigma exists, this is part of the reason people do not get help, and this is part of the reason people are misinformed about people with mental health disorders. 40% of the population at any given time has a treatable depression or anxiety. Only .4% of the population has a serious mental health issue that could impact others in a negative way. Society has it backward and thinks that anyone with a mental health issue is dangerous and should be avoided. That they will need police involvement and so on. This is not accurate information. Yet this misinformation leads to a fear which many times drives NIMBYISM (not in my backyard).

Nineteen years ago, Mental Health America, known as MHA of Dutchess County sought to take more control of its finances and consolidated two rented offices into a building they purchased at 253 Mansion Street.  At the time it was abandoned, and people found areas around the building to do drugs. The area in and around the building was ignored and stagnant. MHA of Dutchess County needed a zoning variance from Industrial to Business. This was the first time I experienced NIMBYISM or “Not in my backyard”. Most of the Zoning Board in Poughkeepsie was against granting the variance.  While they would not say it out loud, we all knew it had to do with the fear of the words “Mental Health”. Then one of the council members wrote a scathing letter which became public.  In it, she made her feelings quite clear. She did not want “mental health people” in her city.  She did not want them defecating on the sidewalks and urinating on the trees.  It was such an outrageous letter, such a misinformed letter, such a hateful letter, that ironically everyone on the zoning board needed to distance themselves from it, and ultimately, they voted yes to the variance.

MHA brought that building to code, beautified the block, and embraced the neighbors. We set the stage for other development and improvement.  LCS moved to the area, a Brewery was opened, a hair salon, a restaurant, and more. The area in and around 253 Mansion Street improved. Imagine that! The fear of the misinformed was all for naught.

Fast forward to this year. The current homeless shelter system is located at the PODS on the site of the Dutchess County Jail and needs to be replaced with one that is more effective and less burdensome to the residential area. The PODS are temporary housing structures that were originally built to handle the overflow of inmates at the jail. Coincidentally, shorty after bail reform was enacted and the POD beds were no longer needed, and these structures were vacant. COVID hit, and panic ensued. It was clear that the overnight homeless shelter on the grounds of the old Hudson River Psychiatric Center and the daytime shelter at the Family Partnership utilizing vans to drive people back and forth, and having tight quarters, were not safe.  The two programs were combined into one location at the vacant PODS. The County, MHA of Dutchess County, and Hudson River Housing worked very quickly and efficiently to make this a reality. The unforeseen negative consequence of this decision is the impact it had on the residential properties directly across the street from the PODS. A small percentage of the homeless population at that location participated in activities that turned the residents’ lives upside down. A small percentage of the homeless would trespass on people’s porches and back yards, they have urinated or defecated in their yards, and they would use drugs and fall asleep on the porches. This was a huge problem for the people living in those houses. They felt invisible, they felt neglected, and they felt ignored and disrespected. All those feelings are valid and remain valid. 

To find a solution to the issues that the PODS presented Dutchess County sent a contingent of stakeholders to a Bergen County, New Jersey homeless program which has garnered national attention for being a proven solution to helping people rise from homelessness. I was part of that group. It was impressive and the structure they have, the rules they have, the security they have, and the incentive to move people to want to take more control of their lives works. The County then began a painstakingly long process of fact-finding, analyzing the needs of the population, determining what is available that can accommodate a 120-bed shelter location, that would also allow for services and various levels of housing that incentivize and motivates the person who is homeless to move from that life to an apartment of their own. 

They landed on a property at 26 Oakley Street in Poughkeepsie. A property that for the past 30 years has been a day treatment center for people who have very serious mental health diagnoses. About 100 people a day would go to that location for treatment.  and as far as I know, there has been very little issue with the residential properties on the street because they are quite a distance from the location. The unfortunate part of this property is that it is also in the Northside of the City, the same area where the PODS are located, where the residents feel neglected and disrespected and feel as though all the potential problem programs are placed in their section of Poughkeepsie. So now we have another NIMBY (Not in my backyard) scenario. 

Everyone agrees there needs to be a solution, everyone agrees there should be a solution for the homeless population but since there are backyards everywhere, no one who has a backyard wants it in theirs.  Maybe it’s politics, maybe it’s Republican vs Democrat, maybe its NIMBY, maybe it’s taking a stand once and for all because you don’t feel respected. Each “maybe” is valid and needs to be respected. But it comes with a price.

The City of Poughkeepsie Common Council has decided to fight the County decision of 26 Oakley Street by hiring an outside law firm to slow the process. This move will likely stall the project long enough to leave no homeless solution by the third quarter of 2023.  At that time the company that is leasing the PODS to the County will take them back. If a solution is not hashed out by then there will not be a homeless shelter in Dutchess County. Perhaps they can resurrect the nighttime shelter somewhere, but it will only house up to 60 people when there are currently 120 needing this level of shelter.  But it will leave those same homeless, who are homeless during the day too, to wander the streets. Furthermore, if an overnight shelter location is not found there will be no homeless solution. I do not think the County has the responsibility to assure one exists. They fund this because it is important to the current administration. So, while late 2023 is the deadline for the PODS to be removed, once the current administration leaves at the end of this year and if the next administration does not make it a priority, the solution will be left to the cities and the towns to address their own homeless issues, a cost that is likely not feasible.

People who are living at the PODS have been marginalized their whole lives. Most of them have endured trauma after trauma. About 33% actively use drugs and alcohol, and about 25% have untreated mental health disorders. Some are people who have lived independently their whole lives and now cannot afford the increased rents. Yes, a small percentage of them participate in antisocial behaviors, and another small percentage of them have been a burden on neighbors. But if you go past that group and go into the PODS, you will find many more people who are harmless, kind, and caring.  People who struggle every day trying to get through each day. People who need to be embraced and supported not further shunned. People who need the support to reclaim their inner strength and take control of their destiny. They do this when they are given the opportunity and 26 Oakley Street is the opportunity they need. 

I am hoping that the City Council rethinks the path they are taking with this issue because ultimately it could mean that instead of the small percentage of homeless impacting others there will be 120 people with no place to go day and night. Let’s consider welcoming people to our backyard.  People are more likely to succeed if they are not ostracized.

Sincerely,

Andrew O’Grady, LCSW-R
CEO
MHA of Dutchess County

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Mid-Hudson News.