WATERTOWN — Representatives from Jefferson County and the Watertown Urban Mission brought together community leaders Wednesday morning for a discussion about housing insecurity and homelessness.
The purpose of the meeting, referred to as a “Housing Summit,” was not to resolve homelessness, but to thoroughly examine both the short- and long-term scope of homelessness.
The meeting took place at the newly renovated Arc of Jefferson/St. Lawrence, 380 Gaffney Drive. The discussion was guided by Richard L. Halpin, longtime director of the Center for Community Studies at Jefferson Community College and an experienced strategic planning facilitator. Attendees took inventory of existing programming, identified gaps in services, and made plans for next steps.
The summit drew more than 30 leaders of nonprofit organizations and entities providing support to critical services and infrastructure, such as the Victims Assistance Center, Transitional Living Services, the Community Action Planning Council, the United Way of Northern New York and the Children’s Home of Jefferson County.
“To be without a roof, without a warm, safe place to lay our heads at night is a level of chaos that’s almost incomprehensible, whether it be for a day or an extended period of time,” said Dawn M. Cole, executive director of the Urban Mission. “When you see that level of chaos, you want to leap into action, you want to do something to fix it. Sometimes, there’s wisdom in taking a couple of minutes or a couple of hours and really digging into the issue, really thinking about its many complexities and how it all interlocks.”
The group looked at the strengths and resources already out in the community as well as gaps in services. Those gathered hope this is one of many talks to come. It was decided that they’ll create a steering committee and smaller groups to tackle specific issues that pertain to homelessness and bring issues and solutions back to the group again for another discussion later on.
Participants also discussed the apartment building at 661 Factory St. in the city, where residents were displaced and left to live in a makeshift tent city this summer.
Timothy J. Ruetten, director of Jefferson County Community Services, laid out how it happened, noting that the 661 Factory St. situation has brought area homelessness into the spotlight as a “tipping point” to think about how to move forward and prevent similar displacement.
“My hope is that we will maintain our momentum in terms of forming some specific workgroups and addressing tasks and moving toward what will probably amount to a menu of solutions,” Ms. Cole said. “I know the one thing that I would really like to see beyond everything else is lots of collaboration. We already do that really well, but we need to continue to do that, because the problem with homelessness and housing insecurity and all the complexities that surround it is too much for anyone or two or three entities to take on. It really needs to be a collaborative effort.”
Robert F. Hagemann III, Jefferson County Administrator, knows that the work the gathered entities wish to do will take time, but he believes they are on the right track after Wednesday’s meeting. He said that an important exercise that came from the meeting was representatives from community organizations sitting alongside those from other organizations, learning and sharing with each other what they do in the community and how they can help address homelessness.
What he said became clear to him is there are two solutions community leaders are looking for: one for dealing with the crisis of the moment, and one dealing with the long-term plan to, in theory, avoid a future crisis.
Mr. Hagemann said in August with 661 Factory St., things went well in terms of response considering the fact that agencies didn’t know what they were dealing with and had to learn on the spot. He said the group gathered Wednesday wants to be able to duplicate that again if need be, but in a more coordinated fashion.
“I think the more we invest in studying the situation, the better the product will be when it’s time to make final recommendations,” he said. “I suspect there’ll be some outreach with locations that we’ve heard are doing some innovative things so we don’t reinvent the wheel. Once that’s done, we’ll bring this group back together. These folks have been in the trenches dealing with homeless, home insecurity issues for a long period of time. We respect that; we just want to take it to the next level.”