Orleans officials say county maxed out in emergency housing for homeless population

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 24 May 2023 at 11:51 am

Homeless placements up from 45 to 80; County declared state of emergency last week over possible migrant influx, saying not enough resources available

Photo by Tom Rivers: Jack Welch, Orleans County chief administrative officer, speaks during Tuesday evening’s Orleans County Association of Municipalities at the White Birch in Lyndonville.

LYNDONVILLE – Orleans County has experienced a big increase in homeless residents, with spots in-county maxed out, requiring the county Department of Social Services to utilize motel and hotel rooms in Genesee and Niagara counties.

In July 2022, the county secured temporary housing for 38 homeless residents within the county and for seven who stayed out-of-county.

But in April last month, the in-county homeless residents were up to 51, with the county DSS finding housing out-of-county for 29 other residents, said Jack Welch, the county’s chief administrative officer.

He said homelessness is a “silent issue” that has grown in the county, from 45 people needing housing assistance in July 2022 to 80 last month.

He spoke at Tuesday’s meeting of the Orleans County Association of Municipalities, which includes village, town and county officials.

A week ago on May 17 the county declared a state of emergency due to a possible influx of migrants/asylum seekers.

Welch said none have arrived to Orleans, as far as he knows. There were rumors last week that busloads of 200 to 300 migrants were headed to the Orleans County 4-H Fairgrounds. Welch said he fielded numerous media queries about the rumor that has proven to be false.

He does worry that migrants and people seeking asylum could show up unexpected in the county, and Orleans would need to provide services for them.

He said that would be a big challenge. The blizzard around Christmas showed how difficult it was to open shelters with cots.

Albion and Medina schools did open up as shelters with volunteers on hand to help staff the sites for about 100 people at the two locations.

“We couldn’t even get 50 cots from the Red Cross on Christmas weekend,” Welch told the local officials on Tuesday evening. “If (migrants) do arrive, where would we put them?”

He has spoken with the governor’s office and Gov. Hochul’s staff told him the state is not looking at Orleans as a location to house migrants and asylum seekers.

But he still is concerned asylum seekers and migrants could arrive in the county and need assistance.

“We’re not without compassion, we just truly don’t have the resources to help these people,” said Lynne Johnson, chairwoman of the Orleans County Legislature.

The local homeless population has increased party since the certificate of occupancy was removed at the Holley Hotel last Aug. 24. That displaced 28 residents, including 14 who were taken to hotel rooms in Batavia. Others were able to stay with family and friends, or secure other housing.

Johnson said people who are homeless often struggle with mental health issues, substance use disorder, and many are not motivated to make changes. They can be “onerous” cases for the local DSS staff to try to resolve or connect to resources, she said.

The increase in homeless cases has been exhausting for the DSS staff, especially when people are placed out of county and need access to services.

She noted that declaration from the county wasn’t made because of the incoming farmworkers for local fruit and vegetable farms. Those workers through the federal H2A program have housing provided by the farms.

“We need our H2A workers for our farms,” Johnson said.