Woodstock police, Rupco look to help homeless

Woodstock Police Officer Patricia Vincent poses with scarves she knitted to distribute during a count of the town’s homeless population. (Photo by Nick Henderson)

After a briefing at the Woodstock Police Department, we spread out across town on an important mission. At first it didn’t seem like we would find our targets as I rode with town Supervisor Bill McKenna. We scanned the cemetery, then the Mountain View parking lot. Then the radio crackled to life with word of possible subjects at the Lower Comeau lot.

No, this wasn’t some operation looking for dangerous criminals. It was a compassionate side of police work and coordination with other agencies in trying to get a count of the homeless in town. 

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I joined McKenna, Detective John Amoroso, Officer Patricia Vincent, Councilman Reggie Earls and Jay Quest and Lisa McDonald from RUPCO in the homeless count and survey. Officer Vincent knitted several scarves to hand out and Quest and McDonald had warm socks and gloves.

Quest and McDonald provided information about available programs and started the steps toward housing assistance if needed. McDonald is a care manager who deals primarily with people who have medical needs while Quest, also a care manager, coordinates with the Solutions to End Homeless Program, or STEHP. The program is a partnership with Legal Services of the Hudson Valley, Family of Woodstock and Catholic Charities and provides transitional housing, tries to prevent evictions and provides security deposits and rental assistance. 

With rental rates on the rise and jobs in shorter supply, people can quickly find themselves without a home. Findings from the economic advocacy group Prosperity Now shows 40 percent of Americans are one paycheck away from poverty because they don’t have enough assets to deal with an emergency or temporary loss of income.

A peaceful coexistence

The half-dozen or so homeless known to police were whittled down to three in recent times as people either found housing or left town for awhile.

Two found in the Lower Comeau lot were known to police and have been sleeping in their car. They were accompanied by a third person and all were at first apprehensive, thinking the encounter was part of a roundup.

Detective John Amoroso and Officer Patricia Vincent put them at ease and stepped back as Jay Quest and Lisa McDonald from RUPCO spoke with them. Two of the individuals declined help and were content with staying in their car.

“We see that a lot,” Amoroso said, explaining a lot of people are hesitant to accept help. 

While other communities may treat the homeless like a problem that needs to be swept away, the Woodstock police have taken the role of providing assistance when needed and wanted as long as they are not causing friction within the community.

Officers will give rides to a shelter on Elmendorf Street in Kingston where homeless can get a shower and use the laundry room. Sometimes they need to get to appointments at the Department of Social Services.

It’s unlikely someone finding themselves down on their luck will get arrested simply for not having a place to stay. Instead, they will find officers willing to steer them toward resources that can help. McKenna said knowing the local characters and balancing when to make an arrest and when to de-escalate a situation is an important skill the Town Board looks for when it interviews candidates for police officer.

The role of the police, Amoroso explained, starts yearly in April or May as the transient population rises. Officers lay down the ground rules for coexisting in town along with permanent residents and tourists alike. They are reminded of the open-container and leash laws, for example. “And if there are any concerns with business hours, we address those,” Amoroso said.

One of the individuals in the Comeau lot was surprised when McKenna told him the town had purchased round-trip tickets for the county’s UCAT bus system so people can go to Kingston. “We want you to come back,” McKenna told him.

After making sure the people in the Comeau lot were safe for the night, we headed back out on the road. A short time later, Amoroso called on the radio they were interviewing a woman in front of the liquor store on Tinker Street. It turned out to be success story. She was chronically homeless, but now has a place to stay.

The group decided to make one last check of the parking lot behind Family of Woodstock, where a man was known to sleep in his van after spending the day inside Family of Woodstock. They found him and Quest was confident he can get the man temporary housing and said he will be in touch the next morning.

Again, back on the road when the group soon discovers a vehicle in the Cumberland Farms parking lot that by looks alone, certainly fit the bill…an old Toyota Corolla-type car with its back seats filled to the top and plastic containers strapped to the roof.

It turns out the driver had been living in his car on-and-off for a year after working as a painter in Shady and allegedly getting stiffed by a contractor.

Quest and McDonald quickly developed a rapport and tried to steer him toward the Kingston shelter. They explained available programs that provide assistance with finding apartments and coming up with the deposit, but he said other people need it more than he does.

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He said he was going to his sister’s place in Rosendale. Also a musician, he offered to perform for a RUPCO benefit. While hesitant to accept assistance, he did accept a pair of warm socks along with the addresses for shelters and a list of RUPCO contacts. He said he hopes to one day live in a cottage in Rosendale near his sister.

Everyone soon regrouped at the police station, where the consensus was, with six people contacted, the evening was a success. The group agreed to plan for another count in the summer, when the number of homeless is on the rise.

“Almost on the first warm day, we tend to get an influx,” Amoroso said.

There are 4 comments

  1. sally

    Compassion is the answer to dealing with housing insecurity in our communities. The punishment culture that has been left over from previous generations should be abandoned. Yes, it can be scary for the average person to deal with some of these individuals, but law enforcement seems like an excellent tool to help manage the needs of the housing insecure. Many of these individuals are often victims of a society that does not offer safeguards and protections for all. Homeless shelters cost money to stay in, and can be hotbeds for abuse. While we have pretty good systems for the food insecure, the problem of housing is still largely unaddressed in a meaningful way. Law enforcement has historically been violent to the homeless, and this is a step in an excellent direction.

    1. Ellen Kinnally

      It doesn’t surprise me that officer Amarosa is involved as he is such a lovely compassionate person who helped my Daughter and me when we were having an emergency one day. He is a special human being. And an old fashioned type cop like out of the movies. I’m glad the horrible Woodstock former Chief and some bad actors are gone from the Dept and Town Offices
      This is a very touching story. Nice to see humanity in action

  2. Sally Grossman

    These people should be in a shelter. In NYC the police have to ask if people sleeping on church steps if they want to go to a shelter, then give a blanket. ACLU won a case years ago, the right to refuse to go to a shelter. Do you think these people are mentally ill? Sleeping in their cars? And Bill McKenna wants them to return. Better to encourage them to go to Kingston and RUPCO for services and help. We have soup kitchens, but do churches in Kingston have shelters? I remember my Mom’s church in Astoria Queens, Church of the Redeemer, has a shelter in their basement. Coffee in the morning and back to the street.

  3. Lenny Bloch

    Thanks for the great piece, Nick. My son was almost in that position. Spoke with Woodstock’s finest and learned of their genuine compassion and care. I do agree with Sally, that they need to be off the streets, however some of the shelters only fuel their helplessness and low self esteem. Sigh. No easy answers.

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