Curt Atkinson, who holds a sign asking for donations in downtown Syracuse, doesn’t have a stable home.
Every day he aims to gather $10 to $15 to secure a spot on a couch to sleep. In Central New York, about 25 to 30 people live without a home, according to estimated results of the annual “point-in-time” count, organized by the Housing and Homeless Coalition of CNY.
PIT counts take place all over the country during a 24-hour period in late January. The counts help federal agencies distribute millions of dollars in funds for communities to help shelter those without a home who aren’t already part of a sheltering program. This year’s local survey was conducted Wednesday by more than 100 volunteers across Cayuga, Onondaga and Oswego counties.
Central Current accompanied a group of volunteers through a list of locations downtown, including parking garages, parks, gas stations, underpasses and small nooks under bridges. The group found three individuals during a two-hour period. Volunteers were equipped with a small kit of supplies to provide people with gloves, hand warmers, beanies, first aid tools and hygiene products.
Two people standing on Herald Place the night of the count said they were cold. They too complained about scraping together enough cash for a spot on a couch for the night. One said she was tired of going through that routine every day. She said she was concerned about the precarity of her situation, worried that if the person who owned the couch was mean, or in a bad mood, they’d find themselves back on the streets again.
The PIT count, started in 2005, provides groups like the Housing and Homeless Coalition, called “Continuums of Care,” with federal funding through the Department of Housing and Urban Development, to provide a full range of emergency, transitional and permanent housing for people experiencing homelessness.
In 2022, HHC received $11 million in funding from HUD. That funding is distributed to local nonprofit organizations to support two types of housing projects, said Megan Stuart, HHC’s director.
Permanent supportive housing, a lifetime subsidy program for people with disabilities experiencing homelessness, is offered by organizations like Helio Health. The other program is rapid rehousing, offered by organizations like Catholic Charities of Onondaga County, which covers up to 24 months in housing subsidies – but isn’t exclusively targeted to people with disabilities.
Volunteers counted three times as many people without a home this year as they did in 2022, Stuart said. Nine individuals were reported by HHC as homeless in 2022.
Stuart said the “dramatic” increase could be related to the effects COVID-19 pandemic and the sunsetting of pandemic-era protections like New York’s statewide halt on evictions. The pause on evictions lasted from spring 2020 to the start of last year.
HHC will file a complete report with a final tally for this year’s count in April, Stuart said.
“Folks still weren’t really moving around,” she said. “Now we are seeing folks who were perhaps evicted and were able to stay with friends or family but have now exhausted those resources. We’ve seen a large number of folks who become homeless and have never experienced homelessness before.”
Stuart said economic factors like rising inflation and cost of living are also driving people out of their homes.
“Rents have increased pretty steadily in Central New York,” she said. “It’s just getting harder and harder to afford a place to live.”
Data from Zumper, an online rental service, shows the current median rent in Syracuse for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,180, a 16% increase from last year.
The count could also be up because more volunteers – 110 people – helped this year. The number of volunteers had been limited by COVID-19 in recent years, Stuart said.
“It is really encouraging to see your community kind of rally around and recognize that this is a huge issue,” Stuard said. “The pandemic has really made folks struggle and they want to help in any way they can.”
Fanny Villarreal, who has volunteered for the PIT count for 10 years, said she learns something new every year and loves to hear from people in her community. Villarreal is the director of the YWCA of Syracuse and Onondaga County, an organization that has historically offered boarding to unhoused women and survivors of domestic violence.
“It is a rewarding experience, talking with somebody who maybe nobody talks to,” she said.
Michael LaFlair has participated in the count for five years. He said he likes to volunteer because he wants to make sure people are accessing housing services. LaFlair is the administrative planning and funding coordinator for Onondaga County Community Development.
“The issue in Syracuse is not that we don’t have a lot of housing, but it’s really not affordable, quality housing,” LaFlair said.
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