Winter 2008 The Economics of Recovery The Homeless of Westchester County: Trapped in The System

The Economics of Recovery The Homeless of Westchester County: Trapped in The System

Donald M. Fitch, MS

Donald M. Fitch, MS

By Donald M. Fitch, MS
Executive Director
Center for Career Freedom

At the urging of those of our students who reside in Westchester’s’ Homeless Drop-In/Shelter System, the Center initiated a survey this past summer of some sixty single adult residents, and twenty-three one-to-one in-depth interviews of local County and NYC Providers, Advocates, Government Agency Administrators, Business/Real Estate Executives and Home Owners.

Our objectives were to quantify how effective the counties and providers’ social services were in helping the homeless become self-sufficient again. By way of comparison, New York Cities’ Department of Homeless Services Model Program was included in the study.

The interviews yielded well rounded perspectives from Providers, Consumers and Regulators which enabled us to create the flow chart below; “Recovery in a Cycle of Homelessness.”

Beginning with the loss of permanent housing, we found the homeless person is initially confronted with three options; jail, the hospital or the streets. In Westchester County, of the estimated threehundred single adult homeless, about half chose not to “cooperate” i.e. refuse to be assessed or to accept psychiatric or medical treatment.

These people are offered “three hots and a cot, no questions asked” at a Drop-In. They are our highest risk and least served population. (Incredibly, beginning 11/1/07, the County plans to replace some onehundred fifty cots with chairs “to encourage clients to use supportive services”)

They provide beds, showers, lockers, washer and dryer, TV and forty-five dollars/ month spending money. However, any SSI and/or SSDI disability checks (about $700./Mo avg) must be signed over to the Shelter or the resident is sent back to the Drop-In.

Our study found the cost to tax payers for Westchester’s Drop-In Shelter care is about fifty-thousand dollars per year per person. Our study also found the average length of stay in the County’s Drop-In/Shelter System is three years. At a total per person cost of about one-hundred fifty thousand dollars, the cost for all three hundred homeless persons in Westchester County is about forty-five million dollars.

In spite of the millions spent for Social Service programs for the homeless, we found some three-quarters asking for help to “stay off drugs or alcohol,” and “staying out of jail.” Another sixty-two percent felt they needed help with “anger management.” Fifty-five percent asked for help with “psychiatric counseling.”

The study also found half of Westchester’s homeless take prescription medications for psychiatric diagnoses including Seroquel, Depakote, Risperdal, Zyprexa, Abilify, Klonopin, Thorazine, Haldol and Trazadone.

Shelter residents who don’t cooperate with the rules or are sanctioned for “bad behavior” are returned to the Drop-In and the streets.

Because most of the Drop-Ins and Shelters are closed during the day, residents spend their days “walking around” (62%), “at the library” (52%), “in program” (40%), or “at the park” (30%). About one-third say they pan handle.

“In winter and summer, we hang out in the library and read the newspapers and magazines or go to the Food Court at the Galleria where you can use the bathrooms. The Security Guards chase you out after a few hours. In nice weather, we sit in the parks and by the fountain.”

“Some just ride the bus; it is comfortable, you can bring your stuff, no one bothers you. You “B.S.” your Case Manager to get a Metro-Card – tell them you have a court date or have to go to a relatives’ funeral – you save $38./Mo (1/2 fare).” “Pan Handle – to buy liquor: For $4. I can get a bottle of Devil Springs Vodka – it lasts all day.”

Another question we asked was “how do you survive on $1.50 a day?”

“Pick cans on trash days– you can make about $30/day plus collectables if you are lucky. I sell the stuff to antique dealers” “Dumpster diving at schools can get you stuff when the maintenance guys clean out kid’s lockers; knapsacks, sneakers, CD’s sports equipment, clothes.” “Caddying: $150. a loop plus tips – you can get $300-$400/day cash.” “Take opinion polls at the Mall – they will pay $5 to $25.” “A few of the women do tricks.” “Some guys do odd jobs; painting, handyman stuff – but you better not let DSS find out you are working – they will throw you off Welfare for fraud.” “You scam Doctors into prescribing pills you can sell; pain killers, Anti-depressants, etc. you can get $15/pill for Viagra.” “Sell my food stamps – you can get 70¢ on the dollar from some delis/grocery stores. They add on an extra dollar. It is done on the key pad, not the register. I am supposed to go to program – but on $45./Mo that VOA gives me out of my $700. Disability Check, I cannot afford to go – I have to pan handle. Some steal and fence; cell phones, CD’s/DVD’s, computer games, gift cards, prescriptions. Also, you can do moving van work, $10./hr cash plus what you can steal.”

Drop-In/Shelter Resident Evaluations of their Case Managers were mixed; less than half felt their Case Managers were “very or somewhat helpful” in providing “benefit application assistance” “addiction counseling” or “health care and medication counseling.”

Nine out of ten residents were “definitely interested” in getting assistance in obtaining a Photo ID, Birth Certificate and Social Security Card. Without these documents, they cannot file applications for permanent housing in the community.

They feel, and effectively are, trapped in the system.

By comparison, the homeless in New York Cities’ Department of Housing Services (DHS) program stay an average of three months at a cost of less than five thousand dollars per person.

DHS achieves these remarkable numbers through an aggressive outreach program, performance based contracts, weekly on-site shelter supervision, daily census data, daytime service access and a rental assistance program which prevents housing evictions from happening in the first place.

Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, DHS’ leaders have transformed how New York City copes with their homeless. Hopefully, Westchester will be able to learn from their success.

© 2005-2007 Center of Career Freedom -

The Economics of Recovery The Homeless of Westchester County: Trapped in The System