WEST CARTHAGE — Local officials say they’re getting tired of having to respond to repeated emergency calls at the Pleasant Night Inn, calls they blame on people placed there by the Jefferson County Department of Social Services.
During the Nov. 8 West Carthage Board of Trustees meeting, David Pustizzi, officer in charge of the village police department, said much of the small police force’s time is taken up by calls to the inn, which recently has contracted with Jefferson County DSS to provide emergency housing to displaced people.
According to Mr. Pustizzi’s findings, village police officers, sheriff’s deputies and state troopers responded to reports at the 30 N. Broad St. hotel 14 times in 2020. To date that number has soared to 108 in 2021, with 83 of this year’s calls occurring since DSS clients moved in. Village officials said they strongly believe the increase in emergency calls is a direct result of the new residents.
“It is not all about the number of calls, but more about the root of the problem and the lack of planning to address the issue,” Mayor Scott M. Burto said.
In addition to an increase in the police calls, there have been more fire calls to the hotel.
“Recently the residents have added pulling the fire alarms, which now puts our volunteer firefighters in a dangerous, unnecessary situation,” Mr. Burto said. “One ‘fire alarm’ call at 1:30 a.m. involved our chief walking into a fight between two guys and a girl with crowbars. That is not a position we need to put any first responder in, especially volunteer firemen.”
During the November village board meeting, trustees agreed to move forward with a local law to hold business owners liable if unwarranted calls for fire service are made.
The mayor said he’s aware the Watertown community has seen similar situations arise at local hotels in the city, but said the problem only came to West Carthage when the county shifted a large number of people in emergency housing to the village.
“This problem is just new to our community, because instead of being proactive, the county has just picked up the problem and moved it to another area,” he said. “That is the easy and most convenient way.”
Teresa W. Gaffney, county DSS commissioner, said she would not discuss the number of clients utilizing the West Carthage hotel, nor the amount of payment offered to the hotel owners. Citing confidentiality restrictions, she said the county contracts with a number of area hotels to accommodate people in need of housing and that there are state and federal programs under the wing of DSS, so the full amount of payment for housing is not paid by local taxpayers.
Jefferson County Board of Legislators Chair Scott A. Gray, R-Watertown, said the core issue isn’t a new one for any community in the county, and the current spike in emergency housing residents in West Carthage is the result of housing losses in Watertown.
For the emergency housing program, DSS officials request quotes for room rates from local hotels and select the lowest-cost rooms. There’s no official contract, and no rooms are held open for emergency housing — people are sorted to the nearest, cheapest hotel with an open room that has agreed to work with the program.
The Rainbow Motel and the Relax Inn Motel, two Watertown-area businesses that took in many DSS clients, recently closed. The Rainbow Motel burned to the ground in 2020, and the Relax Inn Motel closed its doors in August.
Additionally, a Watertown apartment complex at 661 Factory St. closed its doors abruptly in early August. That building offered long-term housing for people with nowhere else to turn, and its closure pushed a lot of housing-insecure people back into homelessness.
Mr. Gray said those three building closures have led to an increased reliance on other hotels and motels in the area.
“We’re going out of the county now; we have some people staying in Gouverneur,” he said Monday. “We have to put people wherever we can find the space.”
County Legislator John D. Peck, R-Champion, chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, said he is aware of, and sympathetic to, the situation in West Carthage. He said the county is looking into long-term solutions to fix the core issues driving the county’s homelessness problem.
“There is a lack of mental health resources and places for people to go,” Mr. Peck said.
Timothy J. Ruetten, director of the county’s Department of Community Services, on Monday said he and a team of local leaders from area nonprofits and other agencies are working to develop a solution to local homelessness.
Mr. Ruetten, who is in charge of mental health care for the county, was made the de facto point person coordinating the county’s community response to homelessness after 661 Factory St. closed, putting nearly 40 residents out on the streets. Those residents camped outside the closed apartment building in August, and their camp became an impromptu homeless shelter, bringing in people from all over the county.
He said that situation exposes the need for a well-thought-out, holistic solution to housing insecurity in Jefferson County that addresses the many reasons that people may find themselves without places to live.
“The people at 661 were housed until midnight that evening and then suddenly they were homeless,” he said. “That’s not really a homeless situation, that’s an emergency shelter issue.”
Mr. Ruetten and other community leadership gathered at the Arc of Jefferson/St.Lawrence in late October to examine the short-term and long-term scopes of homelessness and housing insecurity in the region.
Forum participants seemed to agree that the county needs both a short-term solution to the current levels of housing insecurity and homelessness, and a long-term solution to help keep people from becoming homeless in the first place.
Mr. Ruetten said a small group of local leaders were reconvening Tuesday to establish a committee and work groups to further develop ideas. He said local leaders want to take deliberate steps before committing to any projects or programs, to ensure they actually solve the issues at hand.
He said traditional homeless shelters, like those in New York City or other urban areas, tend to carry more negative effects than expected, and without support, the people who use those shelters often find it difficult to improve their situations.
He said there are a few potential programs in mind that would fit the county’s needs better, although specifics are not yet available. One such program would be a single-room arrangement.
“Single-room occupancy programs might work for a community like ours,” he said. “There are programs, one managed by a local provider, that provides a safe, secure and healthy living environment while also helping a person remain engaged in the services necessary to help them.”
Ultimately, Mr. Ruetten said officials are dedicated to solving the issue of local homelessness and housing insecurity, but they need to take their time to do it right.
“I would love to have solved this already,” he said. “But there are a lot of moving parts, lots of players and it’s important that we move at a pace that is thoughtful.”