Voices from the Streets: How Homelessness Impacts the Syracuse Community

Story by Jaspreet Gill; photos by Chelsea Taxter.

No stranger to hardship and homelessness, the city of Syracuse was named one of the top ten poorest places in 2018 by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2018. While many people have a set image in their mind of what homelessness looks like, in reality it has all different faces. Here in Syracuse, homelessness impacts women, children, families, single adults, veterans, elderly, and so on—and these people all come from different circumstances. To better understand homelessness, why it happens, and how it can be helped, here are four stories from the city of Syracuse.  

Homeless Women Veterans: the Invisible Demographic

In the middle of Hawley Avenue sits two trailer-sized homes, each equipped with a sleeping area, kitchen, bathroom, and living room. In the backyard, you’ll find a shared community garden and a fire pit.

These tiny homes were built by Serenity for Women, a local not-for-profit organization. The homes have given new lives to two former homeless women veterans- a demographic that Serenity for Women’s Vice President June Worden says is often overlooked.

Tiny Homes
These tiny homes on Hawley Ave have given two formerly homeless women veterans a second chance at life.

“When you think of a homeless veteran, you probably think of a white male standing on the corner asking for money,” she says. “Female veterans, especially women that have children, are very good at hiding the fact that they might be homeless. They might live in their car, they might couch surf and have family members that they’re able to use to assist them for a while. But as you can imagine, if you’re homeless and you’re at somebody else’s residence, it doesn’t make it easy for either party.”

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported in its 2017 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress that the number of female homeless veterans increased by seven percent between 2016 and 2017 and the number of homeless male veterans increased by one percent between those years. Between 2006 to 2010, the number of homeless veterans that were women more than doubled from 1,380 to 3,328, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.

Jacquei Pick has been living in one of the tiny homes on Hawley Avenue since February. Having served in the U.S. Navy for eight years, she says female veterans and those on active duty who are women are treated differently than their male counterparts and that mental health programs need to be more accessible.

“Our mental health system is so broken,” Pick says. “There are not enough beds, there are not enough psychiatrists, psychologists, or nurses, and we have homeless people out on the streets that are mentally ill and not medicated. And as far as female veterans go, we didn’t get treated the same as male veterans when we were in the military and it does not change when we get out.”

Pick recalls one particularly terrifying experience she had while on active duty.

“A lot of female veterans were sexually assaulted in the military and I was one of them,” she says. “I never said anything for 32 years because it was my supervisor… I had only been there for about two months when I was assaulted, and he was married and I worked with his wife. I didn’t tell anybody because I was ashamed that I allowed them to do this to me.”

Linda German, who lives next door to Pick, has been in and out of homelessness for years. Worden says finding Pick and German was difficult because female homeless veterans generally aren’t open about being homeless.

“If you look at the population that is underserved, it’s women. It’s mostly men that are being served,” says Worden. “Women are just really good at hiding things.”

The Rise of Homeless Youth and Single People in Syracuse

On a chilly September morning, D.C. Richardson waits in line near downtown Syracuse with her three godchildren waiting to get free groceries and clothes. She’s one of many single people at Sandwich Saturdays, a weekly event held to give free basic necessities to the homeless and poor.

Richardson started going to Sandwich Saturdays when she was living in a homeless shelter. Three years later, she still attends.

“I’m disabled, I can’t work,” she says. “I don’t have any money but when I do, I take my godkids to Sandwich Saturdays. It’s something for me to do, they still have fun, they get to meet different people and they like it. My godkids are like a source of income for me too, their mom will tell me to take them out for a couple of hours and she’ll give me like $20.”

A Point-in-Time Count, a one-day count of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people across the United States, was conducted by the Housing and Homeless Coalition of Central New York in January of 2018 and found that the number of homeless youth, single people, and families in central New York had increased since 2017.

The count revealed the number of individuals in households with only children in emergency shelters increased by four people since last year. The total number of households without children was 402 households in emergency shelters, an increase from 2017’s 376 households. The number of homeless women decreased from 92 to 83 individuals in 2018 in emergency shelters, but the number of men in emergency shelters increased from 284 to 320 individuals.

What do these numbers mean for Syracuse? As winter approaches, colder weather means more people flocking to homeless shelters around the city that can only hold so many people. As a result, those homeless people end up on the streets.

Kevin Walton, Director of the Booth House, the first shelter for runaway teens and homeless teens in New York, says the organization usually sees an increase of teens coming into the shelter in the winter.

“In the summer, you can couch surf and stay out as long as possible because it’s warm outside, but in the winter the weather is brutal,” he says. “We have 16 physical beds and four cots so we have up to 20 beds in the Booth House, but if it’s winter and the beds are full and somebody walks up to the door, they’re going to be let in.”

Walton says the Booth House serves to provide runaway and homeless youth ages 12 to 17 a safe place to stay. Teens can stay for up to 120 days and are assigned a case manager that works with service providers in the community. He says many runaway and homeless youth suffer from substance abuse and mental health issues and that homelessness is not just a local issue; it will take a bigger force to combat.

“I think all of the systems need to do a better job with providing their services,” says Walton. “From education, mental health systems, parents at home, family systems, the economy. All of it goes hand in hand.”

From Sleeping on the Streets to Becoming a Homeless Advocate: How Al-amin Muhammed started Sandwich Saturdays

Every Saturday, hundreds of homeless people gather under the West Onondaga Street Bridge for Sandwich Saturdays, a program started by local homeless advocacy organization We Rise Above the Streets, which provides the homeless population of central New York free food, clothes, shoes, books, pet food, and other necessities.

Sandwich Saturdays.
Volunteers give a man free groceries at Sandwich Saturdays.

We Rise Above the Streets founder Al-amin Muhammed knows first-hand the struggle of transitioning out of homelessness. He grew up in Chicago and his life was marked by selling drugs and gang violence. He wanted a change and moved to Atlanta, where he found himself a job.

That change was short-lived. Muhammed was fired from his job and fell back into selling drugs, only this time he was facing more than two decades in prison. While in prison, he was introduced to the religion of Islam, which he says was a turning point in his life.

“I found who Al-amin Muhammed was, my gift, and purpose” he says. “I had time to think. I did a lot of self-reflection. I did some self-inventory about myself and was rewinding the tape back to see all the mistakes I made in my life, who loved me, and who didn’t.”

When he was released from prison, Muhammed had no place to go. He was at his lowest, sleeping on the streets, and eating out of garbage cans. One day, Muhammed was approached by a man who promised to help him turn his life around.

“When I met him, he gave me light,” says Muhammed. “I told him my story and he was very, very, very shocked and saddened. He told me, ‘Al-amin, one day you’ll help a lot of people, your story’s powerful, and I’m going to help you get out of the situation you’re in.’ So he hugged me, kissed me on my cheek… I had never had a man that hugged me, kissed me, embraced me as a father role or as a brother-mentor role.”

Muhammed started We Rise Above the Streets in Atlanta and helped the city’s homeless population. He then met his future wife who lived in Syracuse and decided to bring the organization to central New York.

“I was taking my wife to work one day and I was listening to NPR and they said that Syracuse was one of the poorest metropolitan cities in the world and that just blew my mind,” says Muhammed. “So I started doing my homework and started going to the South Side and West Side and downtown. I would start talking to people.”

Steven Watkins, a foster parent of six, comes to Sandwich Saturdays with some of his children to help distribute clothes, water, food, and other necessities to almost 400 to 600 people every Saturday.

“There’s a lot of people in need,” he says. “I see a lot of families here, kids, adults. People of all ages.”

Heather, a Sandwich Saturdays volunteer, reads a book to a child.

Lacking Adequate Resources

Perhaps the biggest struggle for Syracuse’s homeless population isn’t figuring out where their next meal will come from or where they will sleep at night. Rather, it’s finding resources that will help them transition out of homelessness.

The Housing and Homeless Coalition of Central New York estimated that from October of 2016 to September of 2017, the total number of homeless people in Syracuse, Auburn, Oswego, and Cayuga reached 7,416 individuals.

Jose Cruz had been homeless for the past eight years after aging out of the foster care system when he turned 21 years old. He moved from the streets of New York City to Syracuse when he learned he had two children, but was kicked out of the apartment he shared with his girlfriend after she found him smoking synthetic marijuana, also known as “spike.”

Cruz ended up at the Rescue Mission, a non-profit organization that provides outreach programs and shelter to homeless people in central New York. He described his living conditions in the organization’s Syracuse campus as “pure hell.” He shared a room with 50 other men and was often paranoid he would be robbed.

But the biggest thing Cruz says the Rescue Mission could have done to help him was provide resources to transition out of homelessness. After getting himself clean from drugs, he began attending a weekly program at Syracuse Behavioral Healthcare, now known as Helio Health, and he currently lives in a crisis home in East Syracuse.

“Everytime I came into the Rescue Mission I had to do all the work myself, which I didn’t mind because I’m a grown man and I have responsibilities, but sometimes I just needed guidance, you know?,” Cruz says. “I needed someone to tell me to look at this place for jobs, search in this place for an apartment, stuff like that.”

Tori Shires, Chief Development Officer at the Rescue Mission, says the organization offers several different services to their residents.

“We have case managers on site … They help connect guests of the Mission to services they might need in the community, whether that is physical or mental health services,” she says. “We try to provide a path to independence.”

The Rescue Mission operates a 183-bed emergency shelter for men and women and a 68-bed adult home with 31 units of supportive housing in Syracuse. In 2017, the organization spent more than $16 million dollars towards program services, including emergency, residential, and social enterprise services.

“The goal is to not let this be long-term but in some cases there are people that stay longer,” says Shires. “Our ultimate goal is to end hunger and homelessness in [Central] New York.”

Daniel Jones has been living on the streets of Syracuse’s North Side neighborhood for the past 18 years. The former carpenter lost his home after not being able to work after years of back and knee injuries. He says he needs several surgeries and can’t afford medication.

“I’m in too much pain to work,” Jones says. “I don’t even know where to look for help with getting a job or affording an apartment. Usually I’ll couchsurf or I’m just on the street but winters here are horrible. I think we even need more shelters or enclosed bus stops so people can take shelter there.”

The Housing and Homeless Coalition of Central New York works to provide people like Jones a path to transition out of homelessness by utilizing the Central New York Homeless Management Information System.

“We oversee a 10-year plan to end homelessness in New York and work with that plan and edit it to work toward that goal,” says Sarah Schutt, Homeless Management Information System Administrator. “There’s a variety of different funding streams that support housing programs and we oversee the biggest one which is called the Continuum of Care Funding.”

The $8.9 million dollar Continuum of Care Fund’s 10-year plan ends in 2021 and includes five goals: increasing collaboration and civic engagement between community members and government, access to affordable housing, economic security for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness, and improving health and stability.

The target outcome for 2021 is that 25 percent of participants in all Continuum of Care-funded projects will be employed by the end of their respective program and to completely end chronic homelessness in New York.

But, this is all something Cruz and Jones have heard before. For Cruz, escaping the cycle of homelessness is a long road, one that he says will take longer than 10 years and requires more supportive people.

“I’ll just tell you this, some people actually care about helping others while a lot of people just care about their paycheck.”

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