Trying to help the homeless

SARANAC LAKE – This village’s Ecumenical Council has spent three years working toward starting a homeless shelter here, and it has quite a lot to show for its efforts – except money.

Hope for a federal grant has faded, so the multi-church group is starting to ask for donations to buy a house in Saranac Lake and establish it as a home for the homeless of both Franklin and Essex counties.

It’s a tall order.

“We need to raise about $160,000 fairly quickly,” Rich Loeber, president of the Ecumenical Council of Saranac Lake Inc., said Wednesday in an interview at the Enterprise office. The group now has only about $3,000 for this goal.

The council is just starting to ask for money among Saranac Lake churches and has yet to cast its net farther afield.

Currently there is no homeless shelter in Essex County and one in Franklin County, Barnabas House in Malone. When people claiming to be homeless ask for help from Tri-Lakes churches and county social services, they are usually set up at local hotels. A shelter would be cheaper for the counties; they would reimburse the shelter $10 per person per night, according to Loeber.

He said the Ecumenical Council has a letter of support for its shelter from the Franklin County Department of Social Services and hopes to get one soon from the Essex County DSS.

The council partnered with the North Country Behavioral Health Network on this project in May 2012 in order to get federal Housing and Urban Development funding. They had been aiming for a HUD grant, but to apply, they would have had to hire a grant writer. They realized that would cost up to $30,000, and they can’t afford that, Loeber said.

Meanwhile, the council needs the money now to buy a site it’s settled on in Saranac Lake. Loeber wouldn’t identify it publicly for fear of spoiling a deal, but he said it is a house “near the heart of the village in a commercial area.

“It could be bought out from under us,” Loeber said.

The Ecumenical Council has had North Woods Engineering of Saranac Lake study the house, confirming that it is structurally sound. It would need some renovation, such as re-wiring, Loeber said – that would require extra fundraising and volunteerism afterward – but its layout fits well with the council’s shelter plan, which is all set.

The shelter would give homeless people a place to live for up to 60 days, Loeber said. It would generally be single-sex, depending on who has already checked in. If a man is there, it would be a men’s shelter. If all the men left and a woman checked in, it would be a women’s shelter. If a family checked in, it would be a family shelter.

This follows the model of Barnabas House, which ends up serving almost all men, Loeber said.

The Saranac Lake shelter would have a supervisor on staff during the day and be overseen at night by another person who would live rent-free in an upstairs apartment in the shelter building. Shelter residents would have to leave the house during the day and work on things they need to do to improve their situations. During the day, the shelter’s front office would serve as a clearinghouse to refer people to other local charities and services, Loeber said.

Homelessness isn’t very visible in the North Country, the way it often is in cities, but local church pastors have long seen people come to their doors begging for a place to spend the night. When the Ecumenical Council, a coalition of local churches, reconvened in 2009, it quickly made a homeless shelter one of its top priorities.

“Rural homelessness really takes the form of couch surfing,” Loeber said.

The Ecumenical Council’s website elaborates:

“It is often thought that homeless persons are found on doorsteps and urban streets, but are not present in rural areas. The rate of homeless and ‘undersheltered’ persons in our community is actually higher (per capita) than in large cities. Our homeless share couches in crowded apartments, or live in garages or abandoned buildings. They may move from one friend or relative to another until they run out of options. They may be found in cars, campers, sheds, or hunting camps. There is no survey method which accurately accounts for the number of homeless in rural areas since statistics are usually drawn from those who have sought and received social services, which are often rare in areas with low population rates.”

A HUD survey of homelessness was done not long ago in Franklin and Essex counties, but Loeber said it “grossly underreported” the true numbers because, as part of the study’s national pattern, it took place in the middle of January. At such a cold time, homeless people are harder to find, but about 36 of them were identified anyway, Loeber said.

The Ecumenical Council, a 501(c)3 charitable organization, has a history of starting local services and then spinning them off as their own organizations. These include the Saranac Lake Youth Center, the Interfaith Food Pantry and the local Habitat for Humanity chapter. The same would happen with the homeless shelter.

“In a few years, we would expect it to be functioning as a separate entity,” Loeber said.

Contact Peter Crowley at 518-891-2600 ext. 22 or