How we deal with life on the streets

By Rose Schneider

Nobody knows precisely how many homeless people live in Manhattan. Nor does anyone have a strong handle on the extent to which their homelessness is inflicted by external circumstances – illness, abandonment or economic crisis – or by bad personal choices – drugs, alcohol or immoderate lifestyles.

Solutions to the homelessness problem? Those are at best hit and miss.

But whatever the extent and nature of the problem, Emily Wagner and Amanda Appelgren are trying to mitigate it. Wagner is executive director of the Manhattan Emergency Shelter, and Appelgren is an outreach worker at Pawnee Mental Health Services. In those capacities, they often find themselves working together to help the local homeless community find places to live, sources of income and programs they need to improve their conditions.

At least 671

Wagner works with roughly 400 people each year who stay at the shelter. In 2012 the shelter served 671 individuals through its three programs. Since one of their service requirements is that each individual must be homeless, at one point or another in 2012, at least 671 people in Manhattan did not have a home. In part, at least, physical realities dictate the urgency of her task. Her goal is to help clients get in appropriate programming and assist them in getting their own home as soon as possible.

“We’re almost always full and that won’t change,” Wagner said. “As soon as spots open up we move new individuals in operating on a first come, first serve type of basis.”

Since beds are not held, the homeless are encouraged to call back daily to check for availability. The Manhattan Emergency Shelter can hold 47 people at a time; there are 12 beds for single males, 10 for single females, two disability rooms for individuals who are mobility impaired and six family rooms.

Rooms for families and single men are statistically in highest demand at the shelter year-round and Wagner said that families are always waiting. In 2012, the shelter provided 12,604 nights of stay, counting each person or family member each night as one night.

Statistically, 35 percent of clients the shelter works with have a disabling condition with mental illness being the most common. Wagner believes the number is actually much higher due to the number of individuals who have never received an official diagnosis. Other reasons people use the shelter include a fixed income, veteran status, problems with alcohol and other drugs or delays in receiving Social Security benefits.


Awaiting benefits

She said many people who apply for benefits are denied at least once, which can keep them on the streets or at the shelter. Beyond that,Wagner says she has seen rental rates climb within the last few years, preventing her clients from taking advantage of available properties.

“The majority of individuals don’t have a lot of family support and have come from broken homes where drugs were involved…many are recycling the lives they grew up with,” added Appelgren.

She has seen people flee bad home situations only to pick up the behavior they were running away from because it was all they had seen before.

The women try to have their clients take advantage of either the section eight voucher or public housing when possible. As public housing becomes available, the individual has to either accept or reject the vacant option. With the section eight voucher, he or she can look for different things desired in a property. If the landlord chooses to accept the voucher, the tenant will pay 30 percent of their income toward the rent of the house or apartment with the state paying the remainder. This system aims to help those who are working to sustain themselves but are not making enough to pay for every necessity.


Finding housing

Sometimes finding a landlord who will accept the section eight voucher can be troublesome in itself.

“Housing in Manhattan is unaffordable for many and landlords have cracked down on what they’ll accept…in many cases landlords would rather have a K-State student or someone in the military that they know they’ll be getting their rent paid from,” said Appelgren.

The shelter started receiving a grant in 2009 to give 24 units split between families and individuals with mental health issues. However, the programming will run out when the grant money does. Beyond that, some find that staying at the shelter isn’t for them.

Staying at the shelter requires individuals who come in without a job to find one within two weeks. It is also a dry facility, which can be problematic to those who have issues with substance abuse.

“We have a lot of rules because we are a community living environment; substance abuse is a huge issue we deal with in Manhattan and on a national level,” Wagner said.

On average, the shelter has to deny access or ask people to leave about five times per month because of drunkenness or drug use. Random Breathalyzer tests are also issued periodically each month.


Problems overlap

Although Wagner is unsure of the correlation, she sees a significantly higher number of clients who have a mental illness and substance abuse problem than clients who only suffer from one or the other.

Wagner estimates there are about five individuals at any given time who are consistently homeless in Manhattan. Appelgren says she deals with three people regularly who are career homeless or homeless by choice. These individuals are often seen begging for change.

“They have money but they choose to live this way,” said Appelgren. “They live in condemned homes and fail to pay their utilities and are affected by drugs or alcohol.”

One of them told Appelgren that he is under God’s will, is doing what he loves and has no responsibilities but loves to watch the stars and considers himself an astronomer. Others can’t handle the stress that comes from a group living arrangement.


We attract homeless

Appelgren has worked with individuals from as far as New York who have come to Manhattan.

“I don’t understand why because there is a lack of opportunity here, but people get comfortable and don’t want to move on for different reasons,” Appelgren said.

One theory is that many people come to the area following and relying on soldiers, only to have the relationship fall apart and leaving them with nothing and no way out of the city. Beyond that, Manhattan is viewed as offering homeless people a communal type of living and a lower crime rate than many other cities.

On Wednesday, Appelgren will begin a week-long Point in Time Survey where she will speak with people in shelters, outside and in traditional housing to find out where they slept the night before, and whether they’re veteran. She’ll also try to connect them with the proper resources.

There will always be circumstances where people find themselves without a place to live Wagner said.

“If the shelter can’t help a person, they refer them to me and vice versa…every situation is different but we do the best we can,” Appelgren said.

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