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The story of a homeless shelter (part 1)

This is a story about the past, present and future of the Danielle’s House homeless shelter in Amsterdam as told by those who were involved in it’s creation or are presently involved with it’s operation.

Al Turo, Vice President in charge of Planning, St. Mary’s Hospital

Compass: What can you tell me about the causes behind the founding of Danielle’s House?

Turo: It was probably in the winter of 2010, there was actually an article in the Amsterdam Recorder detailing the concern for homelessness in Amsterdam. They actually had photos of people sleeping in tents down under bridges, by the tracks. With that, the CEO of St. Mary’s Hospital, Vic Giulianelli came to me and Sister Danielle Bonetti and said “We need to do something about this.”

So the sister and I gathered support in the community. With John Nasso from Catholic Charities, we got a hold of the DSS Commissioner at the time, the Mayor [of Amsterdam], the United Way Director, and other community agencies to talk about the concern. At the time, we didn’t have all the expertise around the table to know how to operate a shelter. We also contacted the executive director of the City Mission in Schenectady, the executive director of the Homeless and Travelers Aid in Albany, and the executive director of Interfaith Partnership for the Homeless, to gather some expertise to help us. From that group, from about February to April, we found an apartment and staffed it with volunteers and we opened up our first shelter for the remainder of the winter. I think, at the time, we sheltered 15 or 20 individuals in those two months. We relied solely on volunteers, we didn’t have any paid staff. Meals were provided by various churches and organizations throughout the city. At the end of that winter we re-gathered and decided we had discovered a need and to go further.

So in the winter of 2011 we re-opened a shelter, but this time, a little larger. We were able to get space from Centro Civico, in one of their buildings that was not being utilized. And again, it proved to be a valuable resource.

It was [then] decided that Interfaith Partnership for the Homeless would take this project on as part of their program. They have an extensive shelter system in Albany. So they decided to purchase a home. This committee that was formed four years ago still meets on a monthly basis. We act in an advisory capacity to Interfaith, we help to raise money, and we are the local face of the shelter in the community. We assisted in finding the home for Interfaith, which is down on East Main St. and this, I believe, is the third winter that we have been down there.

We anticipated that occupancy would increase this year and as soon as we opened up the doors there were occupants. We are able to accommodate men, women and families. Plus, if the second floor is unoccupied we are able to put people up there too. The advisory group, which also includes someone from Liberty, DSS and Catholic Charities, meets monthly to review what happens in the shelter, to be that local monitor, to review budget concerns, and to help raise money for the organization.

John Nasso, Executive Director, Catholic Charities of Fulton and Montgomery Counties

Compass: You’ve been with the shelter effort during the whole process. Why is this something you feel so strongly about?

Nasso: Because at my job at Catholic Charities, we were seeing the homeless and back then there were some things in the newspapers that brought [the issue] out to the public, throughout the county.

Compass: I can remember in 2010 that people in the Church St. neighborhood objected to the placement of a shelter there.

Nasso: We rented an apartment on Church St. at that time.

Compass: Why and how has the public come around to your position on the need for homeless care?

Nasso: As far as Church St. is concerned, you know it’s more of a middle class neighborhood and when we put the shelter down in the East End we got less flack. Plus, it’s just easier for the homeless to get to the East End anyway. Also, because we’ve kept it alive, we’ve put articles in the paper, myself and Janine have gone to the Common Council and talked to them, we talk to the Mayor, we’ve gone to the county legislature about it. I think just continually putting things in the paper, not just decrying the problem but describing what we are doing about it, and then bringing some of the religious community in. I think people have come to understand that there is a problem, and there’s a lot of good people working on it. I think when people get together and work on a problem, they feel good about it.

Mike McMahon, Commissioner of Montgomery County Department of Social Services

Compass: DSS had a hand in starting Danielle’s House, is that correct?

McMahon: Yes, in 2010. That was before my time. I was appointed my commission in June of 2011 and the committee asked me to be a part of the committee..and we started talking about what we needed to do for the next year. That’s when we started looking at options; something different than a storefront. We rented a unit off of East Main, and started to look to purchase a building. This was Interfaith that was doing it. We tried to find a space up on Church St. but the public wasn’t in favor of it. But in – I want to say 2012 – Interfaith ended up buying the house they are in now, at 218 East Main St.

Compass: In your opinion, does poverty drive homelessness or is it just chance or some other variable?

McMahon: I think, to some degree, poverty does drive homelessness. I mean, people do make bad choices that puts them on the street. Since 2008 our economy has been pretty poor; it’s starting to get better. However, people did run through savings. People did get put out of their homes. So those “safety net” numbers have increased across our state, and that should be alarming for all of us because you have singles, single individuals, who cannot find work, cannot find a place to live, as well as families who have been on public assistance for over sixty months. That’s an indicator that we will have a very busy year, and that’s been true. Also, we are seeing a lot of opiate use. People who are doing opiates are not going to function well in our economy. They are not going to be able to find jobs, their family life falls apart and they become homeless. So, yes, poverty drives homelessness. That’s my opinion.

Ann Thane, Mayor of the City of Amsterdam

Compass: Describe your involvement with the shelter effort.

Thane: I was really fortunate enough to be in at the beginning, when various agencies in the city came together to talk about the issue of homelessness in tour community, and recognize that there was a problem and that we would need a shelter. That year we knew we would be going through a cold season and everyone was concerned. Back then we met in a St. Mary’s conference room with Al Turo, Lauren Bibby from United Way was involved, Sister Danielle was also involved, Sister Rita was also involved, John Nasso from Catholic Carities and Centro Civico was also at the table. We set our sights that year at providing temporary shelter, somewhere, that would be accessible to the community. It ended up being an apartment that Jay Brundage owned on East Main St. So, for the next year we realized that we were going to have to be more formal and have an entity that would allow for fundraising, partnering with people who had more experience in that activity. Early on we contacted Janine Robitaille with Interfaith Partnership in Albany, and that ultimately, we ended up falling under their umbrella.

My job took me elsewhere so I haven’t been involved with their executive committee in a year and a half. I think we are very blessed that these people came together because now they have purchased the property on East Main St. and hired Tyler Rush, and last year, I think, they took in 78 individuals, and this year it looks like it’s going to be even more.

Compass: What are some of the other issues related to poverty that the city faces?

Thane: We have issues of nutrition in our population and a “food desert” down on the East End. People don’t have enough warm clothing to wear. It’s been an eye opening experience. A lot of my understanding of poverty has come from working with some of the kids down at the arts center.

I have been meeting, for the last year, with the regional representative of HUD to talk about our issues of the community, so we are starting this planning committee to bring in all the facts from our community together to assess where our real problems are and to figure out a plan of action. Then, what HUD will do is gather I formation then issue a report that we can use in our master planning for the future. That allows us to go for funding. We are working with the regional economic entities to come up with our plan for growth and bring jobs back to our community. We haven’t settled on a date yet but we will be having a job fair, sometime before May. So, these are just some of the things I can think of off the top of my head. You can’t tackle a multifaceted problem without a bunch of different tools.

Sister Danielle Bonetti, Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet

Sister Danielle currently lives in St. Louis, MO. I was able to talk with her by phone.

Compass: When you look back at your involvement in the formation of the shelter, what comes to mind most?

Bonetti: I think, what crossed my mind most was the need that was there. It was the need to be able to refer people someplace when they were homeless, and I think the shelter is serving that purpose. The thing that crosses my mind is how difficult it is to maintain it. We tried to build a strong coalition of many different groups so that it wouldn’t be out there floating by itself and I just pray and hope that service will stay and serve the need.

You hope when you start something and then have to leave that the seeds that you sow will bear fruit and be of assistance to people. That’s all we can want in life.

Read part two of this story here.

(Photo by Dan Weaver)

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About Jay Towne

Jay Towne is a resident of Amsterdam, has published six books and is the writer and director of a radio drama, Any Good Thing, that currently airs on WOPG.

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