NORWICH – According to officials about three weeks ago the Family Enrichment Network gave only a few days notice before 86 homeless people were about to be evicted from hotels in Norwich because the group had run out of funding.
The incident caused panic among elected officials and forced other local charity groups and the Chenango County Department of Social Services to step in to avoid a public safety crisis. Local law enforcement, as well as elected officials in charge of health and public safety, were left out of conversations. No information was shared with the public. The county is now working on a plan to create a homeless shelter.
No one we spoke to seemed sure of how many homeless were evicted or how many are currently occupying hotel rooms.
Some officials where told there was no issue when they inquired, while others were pulled into emergency meetings, and others attempted to raise alarm. Many questions remain unanswered.
Those effected included families, children, drug addicts and sex offenders. Even weeks after the incident was mostly avoided, with only a portion of the original number being eventually evicted, local officials still lack details on how or what happened. One thing they agree on is the homelessness crisis in Chenango County needs to be addressed.
Families at the hotels who were receiving support from the Family Enrichment Network said they were abandoned and ignored for weeks until the Chenango County Department of Social Services stepped in to help them.
The incident has exposed a lack of government oversight and communication between elected officials, social services and the groups they work with locally. Officials who could not offer details complained Thursday the Family Enrichment Network and the DSS were not responding to inquires.
What was revealed Thursday is that social services, charity groups and county officials are now working on a preliminary plan to create a homeless shelter in Chenango County, and the Family Enrichment Network is involved with the project.
Plymouth Town Supervisor Grace A. Nucero-Alger, the chairwoman of Health and Human Services, the committee that oversees DSS, said she was told by local groups there was no issue, after members of the public called her alarmed.
“There are a lot of things that need to be answered by social service and the Family Enrichment Network,” she said.
She said even the Chairman of the Board of Supervisors, George Seneck was having a difficult time getting clarity about the issue and had asked her to help find information to share with the public.
“This is crazy, it sounded like a rumor. I made a couple phone calls when that whole thing happened and I was told it was not true. That, they did not dump people off, that's what I heard.”
“Family Enrichment, they got involved – honestly I don't feel comfortable talking about them, I don't really know enough about that group.”
“They deal primarily with Chenango United Way and social services, they have not been in contact with me whatsoever, not at all. I only found out about them after that whole panic that morning.”
“I got a phone call at the house that morning, because somebody had heard that a whole bunch of people who were homeless at the Super 8, were pretty much dropped off at city hall or the courthouse.”
“When I heard that I panicked and started calling the agencies and they told me it was not the case.”
“That's what I was told, and I hope it was the truth, because if it is not we have to deal with it.”
“I pretty much trust how that department is being managed and there is no reason for me to be concerned or alarmed about what they are doing,” she said.
She said she hoped the issues about public safety and homelessness in Norwich would be reevaluated soon, and that the public would be included in the next homelessness meeting with DSS.
The same day, about three weeks ago, Nucero-Alger was told there was no issue, she said a meeting was held about it later that day and she was not invited to attend. She said at the time she did not think it was a public safety issue.
An emergency meeting
About 30 people, mostly from local non-profits, the city mayor, the YMCA director and others held a virtual meeting to address the crisis about three weeks ago.
Norwich Mayor Brian Doliver, who attended the meeting, said it was clear that public safety was a top concern both for those being evicted and the community.
“So about three weeks ago as I recall, it was put together by the United Way.”
He said the United Way and the Family Enrichment Network were seeking help because 86 people were going to be evicted in a few days.
“They explained to us that as of that Saturday at 11 a.m., that same week, there would be no funding. So there was a lot of questions, my questions were obviously as mayor, my question is public safety for the people being let go and my community.”
He said, “You have people that are going to be on the street, they have no place to go and we were concerned about their welfare, if they were going to be in harms way with anyone? I was concerned we didn't know what we were dealing with. These people getting let go, was there an element there that's going to do harm to someone else?”
Local community leader, Pastor Jen Westervelt, was also at the meeting.
“In that meeting there were various representatives that had access to housing funds and different community connections, and we all basically tried to troubleshoot through the situation and it became very complex,” she said.
“My first thought was, 'How do we track this back in order to be more preventative, on a variety of levels, so this doesn't happen again.' Being reactive, it is hard to have a quality response.”
“As we understood it there were 86 people who were going to lose the housing, that had been supplied to them at local motels, and it was going to happen in a matter of days. As we understood it there were children involved in that, there were adults, there were people with checked pasts with drug activity, mental health concerns, as well as sex offenders. So it was a very mixed bag of demographics. The one thing they all had in common was they could not find suitable housing or couldn't afford it. The funding had run out, and though it could be reinstated in June they couldn't stay there.”
She said, “The Family Enrichment Network was there and the representative, there were actually a couple representatives on the call, and it was hard to gauge how we arrived at this point because there was definitely some confusion over: How did this become such a problem so quickly? Why did we not prepare for this knowing it was on the horizon?”
They said the concern was mainly a two week gap in funding.
Doliver said, “Many found temporary housing with family, friends, whatever. So were there a few people put out on the street? Probably. But it wasn't the 86 that we were originally lead to believe could happen. At the last minute they figured something out.”
“There was a quick follow up and some people were evicted from the hotel,” added the mayor.
Free tents and sex offender concerns
After learning of the evictions Nucero-Alger, who was not at the meeting, said it was likely those who were evicted were sanctioned for not following DSS rules.
Doliver confirmed that some groups proposed giving the evicted homeless tents and outdoor equipment as a possible solution.
“A couple of people had suggested that. I don't think anything happened with that. I'm not opposed to it. Obviously it would be a real short term thing... We have an ordinance in the city, you can't camp overnight in a park. So the cops would just have to do their job,” he said.
The Norwich Police issued at least two tickets this week to illegal campers in the city who tried to set up tents. The City PD reported that some of the campers moved further down the river and that tents had been reported appearing in the area behind the Norwich Walmart.
Doliver said, “So we were kind of getting ourselves prepared for what may happen, but of course it didn't happen. But we had to be ready, we didn't know what to expect, we really didn't.
“We were asking about their sex offenders there, we kind of need to know if there is going to be a sex offender on the street because sex offenders have to tell us where they are going to be living and if they're where they're not supposed to be living, we need to know that.”
“They are supposed to report, but obviously in the short term they probably wouldn't have time to run to the police department to tell us that.”
“It wasn't many, maybe one or two, very few to my understanding, it was three weeks ago and I don't recall a lot of that.”
Doliver said he did not have specific data. He said DSS needed to answer the question.
Westervelt said at the meeting, “There were a lot of people who offered resources in the way of food, blankets, backpacks, some recommended to solicit donation of tents, so people without housing could have some sort of make-shift shelter.”
“Someone asked a question about clarifying where those people would set up those tents and the response was, 'They would know the best places to go and do that.'”
Challenges for a whole community
The group also asked local religious groups to let the homeless stay at churches.
“I think there was a concern that typical volunteers aren't prepared to meet the needs of these individuals in question and the buildings don't have enough amenities to support that over a period of weeks,” said Westervelt.
“One of the pieces that stood out to me was, the people we are trying to help have limited abilities to advocate for themselves hence the position they are in, hence they need support and mobilizing from other people. However, there is a balance between, does it make sense for a representative from Family Enrichment Network, or a local church, or another organization, to spend all night and day trying to solve problems for individuals,? Where we should actually be trying to mobilize those individuals to be a part of solving their own problems so moving ahead we are not enabling, we are equipping,” she said.
Doliver added, “What hit home, a lot of them were families with children that go to school everyday and a few actually go to jobs everyday.
“They are all human beings and you want to help them all. You really feel for those that are trying.
Homelessness has been on the rise for a number of years now and mental health issues and drugs go hand in hand with homelessness.”
The mayor recalled seeing homeless individuals a few years ago when he worked at the library. “We never had a homeless issue until about five or six years ago. That's when you would start seeing people on benches. There would be mornings were every bench was being used, somebody would be laying on a bench.”
Doliver said city employees also find drug paraphernalia on a regular basis, even at city hall.
“I don't think there is a park out there you can't find a needle or paraphernalia,” he said.
He said, “I think we need to learn from our history, and I think homelessness is a county-wide problem, but the city needs to be a part of that conversation. Will the homeless come in our direction? Probably.”
“We will see how this goes, but we are probably heading into some kind of shelter idea. Not saying where, but that looks like the direction (the county) are heading,” he said.
“I think the Family Enrichment Network was doing some good things, it just happened. They were upset and rightfully so, and they reach out to all of us. So let's just hope it doesn't happen again. But the homeless issue is going to continue the way it is or it could even get worse, so we have to be serious about fixing the problem.”
“We live in a different world and the drug issues are getting worse, meth and heroin. And meth is a very violent drug, so people tend to get violent when they are on meth. It's a scary one,” said Doliver.
Westervelt said, “I think it's important to note the Family Enrichment Network did not have ill-intentions in this, but we must learn from this situation. Maybe what we can learn from this is we really have to stop hypothesizing and we really have to address unstable housing head-on, and we have to invite law enforcement into that conversation, they should not be finding out about these things by happenstance or after the fact. They are the ones who have to respond and keep our community safe. It would be good to be preventative and get law enforcement insights in these situations.”
“I really appreciate the work of DSS and Dan Auwarter to pull people together. This was not a good situation, no denying that, but other things are in motion that are positive,” she said.