As the temperature turns from chilly to icy to deadly, Kingston’s homeless population must contend with a city where places to warm up have become increasingly scarce. Last month, the Queen’s Galley soup kitchen shut down, closing off one of the few places where people could hang out and stay warm from the early morning until 8 p.m. What remains is a patchwork of “warming stations” run by faith-based groups and nonprofits, most of which are open just a few hours a day. In the interim, the homeless are left to stay warm the best they can.
“Right now, people are using the hospitals to stay warm, lobbies at different agencies, the bathrooms at Dietz Stadium and Kingston Point,” said Family of Woodstock case worker Amy Shields. “They’re just bouncing around hour to hour.”
No one has an exact count of Kingston’s ever-shifting homeless population. Shields estimates that, when a coalition of service providers conducts its annual “point in time survey” they’ll contact at least 150 homeless people in the city. Last year’s survey found 247 people sleeping in motel beds courtesy of Ulster County’s Department of Social Services emergency housing program. But for some segments of the homeless population — like single childless adults, people with substance abuse problems and those who lost access to social services for violating program rules — the only shelter available is often makeshift and unreliable.
Corrina — who did not give her last name — spent three years on the streets before landing in a domestic violence shelter and, eventually, her own apartment. Now she works as a volunteer at the Caring Hands Soup Kitchen at the Clinton Avenue United Methodist Church. Corrina described nights spent wandering the aisles at Wal-Mart to stay warm. Other times she said, she’d spend the night trekking from one 24-hour convenience store to another, hanging out as long as staff would permit before moving on to another haven.
“You just move around all night, you don’t really sleep,” said Corrina. “During the day you try to catch some sleep at the library or a soup kitchen or someplace like that.”
Taking care of the homeless in Kingston falls mostly on the nonprofit sector. Kingston, unlike other Mid-Hudson cities, does not operate “warming centers” at public facilities during extreme cold. According to Stephen Crawford, church secretary at the Clinton Avenue church, in previous years, city officials would send out an e-mail to churches and other service providers listing resources for those without shelter in very cold weather. This winter, so far, there’s been no word.
Over on Albany Avenue, the First Baptist Church operates its Cross Roads ministry in a small building adjacent to the church. The facility offers a drop-in center where the homeless can take a shower, do laundry and stay warm. But the building is only open during daylight hours. At night, Pastor Frank Vernol said, many of his clients go back to makeshift shelters in the Esopus Creek bottom lands behind KingstonPlaza.
“Every morning I wake up in this weather, the first thing I think about is our friends who are homeless,” said Vernol. “Did they make it through last night?”
At the Caring Hands soup kitchen, several people among the crowd gathered for lunch lamented the closure last month of the Queen’s Galley soup kitchen. The operation, housed in the dining area of the Washington Manor boarding house on Washington Avenue, was the only place in town offering hot meals three times a day, seven days a week. At least as important, for some clients, the facility allowed diners to essentially hang out and stay warm from opening early in the morning until 8 p.m. That changed in November, before the soup kitchen shut down but after management of the boarding house changed hands. A sign appeared on the door advising non-manor residents that the dining area was not a warming station and those who lingered after dinner could expect to deal with the police. Once the soup kitchen shut down, the dining facility was reserved entirely for residents of the Manor.
“That was the only game in town,” said one man taking a smoke break outside the Caring Hands soup kitchen. “Not anymore.”
Law enforcement and social service providers say that one of the biggest challenges is dealing with populations that are either ineligible for social services or don’t want help. Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum said that officers are trained to provide people found living outside in extreme cold with referrals to Family of Woodstock or other service providers who, in turn can put them in touch with Social Services for emergency motel housing. But, Van Blarcum said, he knows from experience that not everyone living on the streets will accept the help. “When I worked up in Woodstock we knew where these guys were living in culverts and places like that, when the weather got bad we’d check up on them,” said Van Blarcum. “But most of the time they didn’t want any help and we couldn’t make them accept any.”
Other times, the homeless may find themselves shut out of services because of substance-abuse issues. Family of Woodstock, for example, operates a 19-bed shelter for homeless singles in Kingston. But residents must be drug- and alcohol-free to stay there. Others won’t comply with treatment protocols mandated to access government help.
“Last time I went to DSS they told me go into long-term rehab or stay cold,” said Bobbo Lee, a 50-something alcoholic who’s been on the streets for nine years and says he “knows every bridge in the county.” “So here I am.”
For others, a stay in rehab, or even jail is more like a solution than a problem. County corrections officers say they see an influx of “frequent fliers” coming into the jail on minor charges when the temperature drops. Corrina said she’s seen people damage property or commit some petty crime, then wait for the cops to arrive.
“You cry suicide and they put you in Benedictine on a psych hold,” said Corrina. “That’s three days out of the cold right there.”