Pandemic exacerbates challenges of homelessness

Mural on the housing for individuals of the Family Inn in Kingston. (Photos by Dion Ogust)

It’s one thing to “shelter in place” when you have a place to go. It’s quite another thing to be homeless, like many families and children in Ulster County, and have no space of your own during a pandemic. The place to which such homeless individuals and families and single mothers with children have turned, the Family Inn in Kingston, is a warm and welcoming shelter from the storm. It’s also one that needs assistance as it faces new stresses brought on by Covid 19.

“They’re an incredible organization that provides food, shelter, job training, housing assistance, day care, parenting classes, medical assistance — but they need help,” said Colleen Geraghty of New Paltz, who has done outreach for both the Family Inn homeless shelter and Family’s domestic violence shelter for the past 31 years. “There are so many people living below the poverty line and almost no affordable housing in Kingston. Look how much it costs to rent an apartment in New Paltz. You have four or five people splitting the cost for one apartment! People cannot afford rent on minimum-wage jobs. And then if you lose a job? Or a partner?”

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Nothing of their own

The public-health crisis has turned the socioeconomic divide into a crater-sized gap. “When children come into any shelter, they’re often traumatized,” she said, “whether it’s from a domestic violence situation, loss of a parent or because they’ve lost their home. They have little to nothing that’s their own, and so the staff members try and make them feel safe.”

Because of the hygiene regulations for used items put forth by the Centers for Disease Control and New York State Department of Health, the shelter can only take new items, and it’s in dire need, according to Geraghty. “They need new bedding, sheets, pillows, comforters, towels, pajamas, baby formula, diapers, socks, underwear in all sizes.” The list goes on. “Until you have your basic needs met of food, shelter and clothing, it’s hard to feel safe and to move forward.”

Add to that the social-distancing rules put in place since the novel coronavirus hit New York this spring. “We usually have between 27 and 35 residents at a time,” said Family Inn director Beatriz Valencia. “But right now, we have less, because we can no longer put anyone who is not immediate family in a room together. If we had two single females, we could have them room together, or two single mothers with children; but right now, we can’t do that.” 

The Family Inn staff and the residents “have worked together to make sure that everyone is being safe: washing our hands, hand sanitizer, cleaning and wiping down all surfaces, wearing masks. Everyone has been so cooperative, and right now this is one of the cleanest, safest places you could be.”

Another challenge is to provide the children and adults with access to the Internet and computers. “That’s so important now, with the children not being able to go to school and having to do their homework online. We also have clients that need to keep appointments with their doctors and therapists, and most of that has been through telemedical appointments,” added Valencia.

Family Inn director Beatriz Valencia.

Caseworkers help out

Once they do an intake, Family Inn staff members work to ensure that client needs are assessed when they come in – whether adults or children. Caseworkers are provided who can help get services, whether medical, academic, job training or finding housing. “Once they transition out of Family Inn to their own homes, we continue to provide those services for three months until they become self-sufficient.”

The children at the Family Inn are faced with no school to structure their days. Soon they will be entering summer without knowing whether they’ll be able to attend local camps or pools. “We have several camps that our kids go to that give scholarships, like the Kingston YMCA Camp Seewackamano and Camp Starfish. But most of them are opening up with 50 percent capacity, and I doubt will be able to provide scholarships or hold places for our kids,” said Caitlin Welch, director of Children’s Services at the Family Inn. “I understand that, and I’m happy that they’re able to open at all; but we love to get the kids outside.”

One of Family’s goals is to build a new playground for the shelter. “We want to have a place for the kids to go outside and play and for us to help give their parents a break if they need one,” said Welch. “But we need a ton of mulching and new equipment. We need to get some toddler-friendly equipment, because we often have a lot of little ones here.”

Employees of the Family Inn in Kingston.

The playground is likely to cost upwards of $16,000, considering the cost of mulching, taking down the old one and getting in newer, safer equipment for children of different ages. “That playground is basically condemned,” said Geraghty. “We need to get these kids a safe place to be outside. It’s essential. We all know that children and adults are healthier, happier, have less anxiety when they’re able to enjoy the fresh air and outdoors.”

Welch said that they’ve also been giving the kids “welcome bags” with new toys that they can call their own. Like the adults, they assess the children who come in and find out if they need any assistance with tutoring or early intervention. They might have speech therapy needs or have to go to the dentist. 

“We have local artists that come in and do art projects with them that they love,” she said. Lately the artists have been doing outdoor games with the kids and their parents. 

“We want people to know that they’re welcomed here,” said Valencia. “We are part of this community, and we pride ourselves on being a safe, clean, warm environment.”

Anyone wishing to learn more about the programs offered, or to refer someone to the shelter, can call 340-1847. Checks to “The Family Inn” can be mailed to 38 Thomas Street, Kingston, NY 12401. For information on exactly what is needed most, call the same number or reach out to Geraghty at 430-7405.

Play room at the Family Inn in Kingston.

Computer room at the Family Inn in Kingston.

A bedroom at the Family Inn in Kingston.

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