A documentary on the homeless in Woodstock exposed the audience to a segment of the population often forgotten, while a Q&A session afterward brought to light problems that arise when the very agencies that try to help are underfunded and understaffed.
Homeless in Woodstock, Last Night in the Van, produced by Chris Finlay, debuted to a packed Tinker Street Cinema June 19. The $10 suggested donation per ticket will be given to Family of Woodstock for programs to help the homeless population.
The documentary, as featured in this publication last week, chronicles the lives of a handful of people in Woodstock, who, for a variety of circumstances, found themselves living on the streets or in their vans. Often living on the fringes of society, things got worse for this population when COVID-19 forced safety-net agencies such as Family of Woodstock to close their doors to regular visitors.
Three of those individuals, Zachary Smith, Geoffrey Paturel and Donald “Puppy John” Hanson, died within a three-month period in 2020.
Family of Woodstock Vice President Bruce Ginsberg joined Finlay in the Q&A with RUPCO CEO Kevin O’Connor. When no town representation joined, Urana Kinlen offered perspective from the town’s Housing Committee.
Kinlen said many steps are being taken to address the housing shortage, including changes in zoning that will offer incentives to developers.
In the meantime, HomeShare Woodstock was developed to link homeowners with people who need a place to stay and can offer skills, do chores or provide companionship in exchange for reduced rent. That program is now under the auspices of Family of Woodstock.
“It’s impressive what they’ve gotten done in a short time. If there are people who have an extra apartment above their garage, or a room in their basement or whatever…some of them are elderly, some of them need some support. In exchange for helping them with their shopping, cleaning, shoveling your walk of snow, taking the garbage out to the street, they can offer a place to stay for someone who needs it,” Ginsberg said.
But Finlay questioned how that helps people who are now homeless.
“What are we going to do with the people who are sleeping out in the cold,” he asked. “There’s nobody coming out, asking these people ‘what do you need.’ Some of these people don’t have an internet connection.”
Finlay said nobody brought Perry, who was living in his van behind Family, a hot meal. He also expressed frustration that there is no link between programs for affordable housing and the people who have no home at all.
Finlay also questioned why Family still has not made its front room as readily accessible as it once was.
Kinlen countered that anyone can walk into Family and ask for a caseworker at any time.
Finley said people now have to make an appointment and pick up the phone outside to be let in the building.
“There’s still a pandemic,” Ginsberg countered. “Please volunteer. Come and work for Family of Woodstock and we can open our doors,” he added.
“For the people who just died, sadly it’s too late for them. A pandemic happened. There was no game plan. As you said, it pointed out the vulnerabilities in our system. The pandemic affected the most vulnerable among us,” Ginsberg responded. “That’s who we’re serving.”
10 years to build Woodstock Commons
O’Connor agreed with Finlay that more can be done, but tried to explain that organizations like RUPCO are constrained by funding and sometimes, a lack of local acceptance. “As a society, we are simply not doing enough. Housing has been something that people generally don’t care about and haven’t acted,” he said.
When agencies like RUPCO respond, they meet resistance, O’Connor explained, and the result was the long battle to get Woodstock Commons built.
“My phone rang in 2003. It was Bob Young,” said O’Connor. “He was the chair of the Woodstock Town Board-appointed affordable housing committee. ‘Please come to Woodstock to build some affordable housing. We have been trying for the better part of three decades and we cannot get it done,’” he said, recounting the conversation. “We came. It took us 10 years. Ridiculous. We can never do that again. We built Woodstock Commons and that’s it,” O’Connor said. “Housing is needed. It’s still needed here. It’s needed for the homeless. These people are sleeping in the streets tonight. We’re not doing enough.”
A RUPCO rental assistance recipient asked O’Connor what can be done about raising the allotment because she gets $1000 per month and still can’t find an apartment.
“Please be aware we are simply administering locally a federal program. We don’t make the rules,” O’Connor responded.
RUPCO was able to get an increase to 120 percent of fair-market value, but had to fight hard to get it, O’Connor said. “There’s a million stories like yours. I hope you’ve heard me,” he said.
Ginsberg sought critical financial and personal help for Family.
“If you have money, we could use your money that will go right to solving this problem,” Ginsberg said. “A lot of us have more time and money. That’s why I’m on the board of directors of an organization…Put your time in. Volunteer and we’ve got a lot of ways we can use you, addressing this problem.”
There’s no one answer to the problem, said Kinlen. “We’re working really hard, and we’ve been working for three years. We have to change the system and the problem there’s not one bullet. There’s like 10.”
After the session, Finley said he didn’t mean to snap, but was reacting to what he felt was the same bureaucratic response to the crisis.