NORWICH – Weeks ago about 86 homeless people faced mass eviction from Norwich hotels with only 48 hours notice after the non-government organization (NGO), the Family Enrichment Network (FEN), announced it did not have funding.
Officials have said the issue was partly solved when additional funding was provided, but many are still asking questions and the details of what took place remain unclear.
The issue heightened concerns over local housing and the county is now having discussions about building a homeless shelter.
Questions that remain:
Why won't Chenango County Department of Social Service officials or local NGO's answer questions or share more detailed information?
How many homeless are currently being housed in local hotels by social services and FEN?
Was Chenango County the only place affected by the FEN funding shortage? If so, why?
How many people have actually been evicted in the last few weeks?
Why did this happen and how was it avoided at the last minute?
Why wasn't more notice given to families or the community? Where did those people come from and who are they?
The incident spurred an emergency meeting with select officials and NGOs who are part of the Chenango Area Recovery Team (CART), a group formed by the Chenango County United Way.
United Way Executive Director Elizabeth Monaco reported,“We convened a special meeting of CART, because we have these existing relationships when community issues arise, a few weeks ago at the request of and in response to some of the local churches and nonprofits who were being contacted by other local organizations about the homeless situation.”
Monaco said the group met on a Thursday and the evictions were planned for Saturday morning.
“They (local NGOs and churches) were being told that local funding was ending and that a large number of homeless families being housed in local hotels would no longer be served. We heard that this would occur on a weekend and the concern was that families would need food and other basic necessities over the weekend until referrals to other programs/services could be done when programs reopened that following Monday.”
Monaco said some funding had been found by the following day, on a Friday, and evictions were avoided.
She did not say where the emergency funding came from or know why some families were still evicted, or why the incident happened in the first place. The United Way has not yet responded to further questions.
Norwich Mayor Brian Doliver said last week however that some evictions did take place and the issue raised public safety concerns at the time.
Those effected included families, children, drug addicts and sex offenders.
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 NGOs they work with locally.
Families in need
The Evening Sun spoke to two families who were receiving housing support at the Super 8 Hotel. To protect identities the names in this article have been changed.
Chris and Rachel said they still reside at the Super 8 and had been previously supported by a program funded by the Family Enrichment Network. The couple has two children, one is two and a half and the other is almost one year old.
About three weeks ago the family said they were told they needed to contact DSS and then Family Enrichment Network cut off ties.
They said some people were getting transferred back to Binghamton and others moved to other local social services programs.
“We were told we had to switch and not go through Family Enrichment, go through DSS,” said Chris. “About three weeks ago, just before they told everybody they were out of funding.”
“We got into this situation because a previous landlord wouldn't work with us in getting help for paying back rent,” he said.
“Family Enrichment was going to help us with paying the six month back rent we owned, so we could stay at our place, but the landlord wouldn't accept it. He wouldn't accept any outside help.”
When asked if the Family Enrichment Network was helpful, Rachel replied, “Not really.”
“In the beginning they were, and then when we needed help, right after we were told they were running out of funding, that all of a sudden one of them was on vacation, and we couldn't contact anybody. Nobody has got ahold of us for like two or three weeks. So, we haven't heard anything from Family Enrichment.”
“We had to go through the people at United Way,” she said.
The family tried repeatedly calling the Family Enrichment Network and eventually gave up and reached out to DSS.
“We we told the Family Enrichment program, that they were out of funding, and that DSS could help us. DSS was helpful,” said Chris.
He said DSS was more helpful than Family Enrichment, “But it's a process, we have to come in here like every two days, every three days, and we have kids and it’s a pain to drive them out.”
“We were fine before this whole COVID stuff happened. And then COVID affected my work, finding jobs, and then having two kids in between. And housing is expensive,” explained Chris.
He said they had previously lived in Oneonta.
“It's not bad here, it’s just hard to find a place in your budget that you can work with and get into.”
Life at the hotel
The couple said they wanted to get out of the local hotel as soon as possible and said fighting, drug use and hygiene issues were weekly concerns.
“Lots of overdoses. Just last week somebody actually died,” said Chris.
Rachel said, “There was a lot of fighting at times. People stealing other people's stuff out of the rooms.”
“Almost every week,” said Chris.
“We did a couple of times have to go down to the front desk and tell them that there was a lot of like noise, like banging, a lot of crying and screaming,” he said.
When asked if they felt safe Rachel responded, “I guess, if we have to. As safe as we could. For our children we were trying to get out of there as fast as possible. We're working with kinds of different agencies to try and get out.”
When asked what would help them, Chris responded, “Maybe more respect? Like don't judge people too quickly, for their situation or what they are going through. We got a lot of that, especially from the people who stay there at the hotel. There are a lot of people who get judged by the way they look or dress.”
Another couple, John and Karlie, said they had a better experience at the hotel and they commended the hotel staff for going above and beyond to help people. They have a three year old daughter staying with them.
“For the most part the staff there is amazing, and we get along with most the other people on DSS that are there,” said Karlie.
“They are absolutely amazing, one housekeeper on occasion does our dishes. If we need help or a bedding change she just comes in,” added Karlie. “There are overdoes, it's really not that often.”
The couple recall at least two happening in the last few months.
“One dead case, but they're not sure if it was on purpose or accidental, but even then...” said John.
Karlie said, “You always have pot users and everything like that. I'd rather have people smoking pot than actually shooting drugs.”
“There's obviously drug stuff that goes on, but overdoses are at a minimum,” she said.
“There was a knife fight once,” said Karlie. John added, “Once, a knife fight, it's not like it happens everyday.”
John said, “We don't want to point out specific things but there are people there that have no respect for the hotel rules, and in the rooms you can actually smell the inside of the room from outside because they don't take care of them. And it's not the hotel's fault but the person staying there's fault.”
Karlie said one of her daughters had to stay with her ex-partner, “because the stress of being at the hotel is too much.”
“Just being in one room, she is only eight,” she said.
The couple said they felt safe at the hotel.
“I have high anxiety and the only times it has been set off is the two times the fire alarms went off,” said Karlie. She said the alarm is occasionally set off by people vaping or smoking.
John said, “We had an apartment right here in Norwich but the landlord cut off our electricity and water. Landlords think they are above the law here, that's my opinion.”
Karlie said, “All of our back rent- and we were actually paid up for November through March, which is a time period we weren't there- and he still refuses to turn anything back on.”
Is there a better way?
“(DSS) are giving us $650 for an apartment with two bedrooms, because we have kid,” said Karlie.
They said that was not affordable and the area needs more low income housing.
The couple said the money was not enough to get an apartment but said DSS was paying far more than that by renting hotel rooms.
“No one goes after the landlord, even though he is committing a crime, and (DSS) are paying 10 times more for the hotel room than they would be for our apartment, which was only $760,” explained John.
The couple said the system doesn't really work on solving the real problems and spends too much money.
“Here I have a problem, because I am coming from Europe and we have a totally different system than they have here, and I see a lot of flaws in the system,” he said.
“For example you don't have homeless, you have some homeless people but it's minimal. They have homeless shelters like they have here, but the shelters take in the homeless and they help them actually, getting housing, getting a job, things like that, and instead of the money going straight to them it goes to the organizations, so that they get paid also,” he said.
“Here you are given funds and left on their own to work it out,” he said.
“If it wasn't for the people at the hotel we'd be on the street. It's not the hotel that doesn't want to help, it's the (public) assistance.”
(Following the printing of this story the Family Enrichment Network reported they have no record of missed calls. They released this statement: The Family Enrichment Network provides supportive services for children and families, including support programs for people who are homeless. Recent news stories characterizing our organization as evicting people are wildly inaccurate and misleading. At no point did FEN evict program participants from their temporary housing. Some program participants self-elected to opt out of the program and some were asked to leave the hotel for violating the hotel’s rules and policies, who were then further supported by FEN. At no point were program participants evicted by our organization.)