Homeless problem proves growing and costly challenge for Orleans

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 23 August 2023 at 8:37 am

Holli Nenni

ALBION – The homeless population is increasing in Orleans County, with available emergency housing maxed out, forcing the county Department of Social Services to use rooms outside Orleans at hotels in Batavia, Niagara Falls and Brockport.

Holli Nenni, the DSS commissioner, said the county spent $1,435,600 on emergency shelter from July 1, 2022 to July 31, 2023. That is double what the county was paying for about a year before that.

The number of people placed as homeless increased from 45 in July 2022 to 75 last month, she told local officials on Tuesday evening during the monthly Orleans County Association of Municipalities meeting at the Black North Inn.

Of those 75, the county DSS found housing in Orleans County for 45 of those people with the other 30 having to take rooms outside the county. The DSS works with Dollinger’s in Albion and the Medina Motel to house people in need of emergency shelter.

Nenni said the county has 12 new applications this month for more people who are homeless without a place to stay.

She said there isn’t enough affordable housing in the county.

“This is a complicated issue and we struggle to meet with it every year,” she said.

The Orleans County Legislature declared a state of emergency on May 17 due to the homeless situation and the lack of available beds in case migrants or asylum seekers were sent to the county from New York City. That state of emergency remains in effect.

The state of emergency declaration has been modified since May to not mention migrants or asylum seekers. County officials said the homeless crisis warrants the declaration on its own.

“The state of emergency has been declared due to the County of Orleans experiencing a housing crisis due to an increase of 164% in placement of homeless persons since July 2022 exceeding our limited number of temporary and permanent emergency housing facilities,” according to the declaration on June 16. “In-county placement of emergency homeless persons have increased 134% and out-of-county placement of emergency homeless persons have increased 400% since July 2022.”

The challenge to find emergency housing could get even more difficult once the cold weather season is here. The state’s “code blue” executive order requires DSS to find shelter for homeless from Nov. 1 to March 31, or when the temperature drops below freezing or during other inclement weather. DSS is required to find the shelter without going through the usual application process, Nenni said.

Last year, 153 people were served in the county through “code blue” for a total of about 500 stays. The state reimbursed the county 100 percent for those expenses. Nenni said the state is setting the county’s allocation at $73,000 for this year for “code blue.”

With the homeless population outside of code blue, Nenni said the state reimburses the county 29 percent of the cost for housing single adults. If DSS finds housing for a homeless family, the state reimburses the county about half the expense, she said.

The local DSS also needs to find transportation for the people to get to appointments, even when they are placed out of county.

Nenni said DSS is looking for more options locally to help those in need of housing. One local organization is considering running a warming shelter at a local church to have another housing option locally for “code blue.”

“We want to develop a warming shelter because we have so much overflow already and code blue is coming,” Nenni said.

She said two landlords also are willing do two-week stays for homeless residents, which could turn into longer-term housing.

The Holley Hotel last Aug. 24 was closed due to sanitary conditions, which took 40 units out of mix. Many people in need of emergency housing stayed at the Holley Hotel, which hasn’t reopened yet.

Nenni said none of the current group of people receiving homeless assistance were tenants at the Holley Hotel when it closed.

She has reached out to other hotels in the county about providing emergency housing, but they have declined. The hotels receive the full daily rates, but the county does not have to pay sales or occupancy taxes on the rooms.