Temporary homeless shelter may not be so temporary; over 20 people staying at former Dealmaker auto garage

Nov. 24—WATERTOWN — Jefferson County's first emergency shelter has proven popular, growing to host over 20 displaced and homeless people within the first five days of its opening.

The impromptu shelter on Main Avenue, in the building that once housed Dealmaker Auto Group's body shop, has heat, cots, running water and functioning bathrooms, more than what its current residents would have access to otherwise. Officials and those involved in running the informal shelter said it is far from perfect, but there's really no other option at this moment.

"We are at what I would call near crisis levels," said Scott A. Gray, Jefferson County legislator and Assemblyman-elect. "There are no near-term alternatives; this is the only option we have."

Mr. Gray has taken point in coordinating the emergency shelter, connecting with various agencies and individuals to make it come together last week and continuing to step in to help administer the shelter when possible.

The shelter opened Friday, as a historic snowstorm pummeled the city of Watertown. A group of about 15 displaced and homeless people were sheltering at the Butler Pavilion in the J.B. Wise parking lot, just off of the Black River Parkway in downtown Watertown. A group of local residents had donated food, heating fuel and tarps to protect the people there from the worst of the storm, but conditions were still unlivable.

Local businessowner P.J. Simao, who owns a number of buildings around the city, said he saw how bad conditions were getting Thursday night into Friday, and got in touch with Mr. Gray to offer his building on Main Avenue, just across the river from the pavilion.

"It's not the Taj Mahal by any stretch of the imagination, but it's got four walls, a roof, it has lights and plumbing," Mr. Simao said.

But the facility's current residents, who came to the building from a variety of places, said they're grateful for what the community has given them, and are happy to be off the streets. They've come from all walks of life, some only recently without permanent housing and others who've spent years in and out of housing insecurity. Many have substance abuse disorder, addictions, mental or physical illnesses, but others said they found themselves slipping out of housing security purely because of economic concerns, high rents and low wages.

Billy is a veteran, originally from Canton, who has been trying to get assistance through Veteran's Affairs for years for his health problems, which make it difficult to work physical jobs. He's been through rehabilitation programs for addiction, and he said this is his first time in a shelter, after years of programs and renting his own apartments.

"I've got money, just not enough for rent at an apartment now," he said. "They've gotten so expensive, I can't afford it."

Matt, who has claimed the cot next to Billy, said he was born and raised in the city of Watertown, had a stable job and housing, but that dried up.

"I grew up here, born and raised, I have a bachelor's degree in psychology from Syracuse University, and here I sit at the age of 45," he said.

In September, he found himself out of an apartment and couch surfing, until his case manager at the Children's Home of Jefferson County informed him on Friday that a shelter had been established in the city for people who don't have a place to stay.

"Before, the only place I knew of was the domestic violence shelter, which I believe usually you can't get into as a male," he said.

Both Billy and Matt said they've tried to get work, but without a stable address to receive mail at, they can't submit applications, can't send or receive money from their families, can't establish bank accounts or do any of the things they want to do to get stable housing.

Tammy had been living at the Hotis Motel in Pamelia with her husband and daughter until it was condemned and shut down in October, when she moved to the Butler Pavilion. She was the first person to settle at the shelter on Main Avenue, and has taken on a leadership role there, helping to coordinate cleaning and meal preparation, as well as the Thanksgiving meal being planned for Wednesday night.

She said she would like to see the temporary shelter become a touchpoint for people to get the help they need.

"I wish they would send some DSS workers and some of the other agency workers, maybe after the holidays, to come and talk to each individual here," she said.

She said she would like to see the Main Avenue shelter stay open year round, as a temporary place for people to go to for emergency help and connection with services, to then move into stable housing. She's even given the place a name "MASH One." She said she thought of the name, a reference to the CBS comedy series from the 1970s, the first night she slept on one of the military-style cots in the shelter.

"The name is 'Manage All Significant Homelessness,' and because we're the first shelter that opened up, we're number one," she said. "They could put that on the side of the building and people would look up and say 'Oh, we're here!"

Pete, who had been staying at the Butler Pavilion until the shelter opened, has lived in Jefferson County for about two years, trying to access disability benefits and healthcare for his spine, knee and hands.

Pete was at the Butler Pavilion on Wednesday, alongside Mr. Gray and city officials including City Manager Kenneth A. Mix and city Parks and Recreation Superintendent Scott M. Weller, looking through the leftover clothes, shoes and other leftovers from the people who sheltered there. He said the people at the shelter would likely want to save as much of the food, clothes and other items as possible, although much of it appeared beyond saving, after lying in the snow and cold for days.

ACR Health staff plan to return to the pavilion on Tuesday to remove needles and other drug paraphernalia, and city Parks and Recreation staff will clear the pavilion then. People who sheltered there have been given until Monday to retrieve any belongings they left.

The signs outside the shelter on Main Avenue say temporary, but Mr. Gray said he isn't sure how long 'temporary' really means.

"We can't just close it, there's nothing else; things would just go right back to the way they were before, which was unacceptable" he said. "You tell me what's next and I'll tell you when this ends."

Mr. Simao said he's committed to keeping the building available as a shelter for as long as it's needed.

"They can call it temporary, whatever temporary means, whether they need it for two months, that's fine. If temporary means they need it for two years, that's fine."

Both Mr. Gray and Mr. Simao said they see this as a community coming together to solve an emergency need, with donations and volunteerism driving the response. The county has stepped up to offer some financial support, providing round-the-clock security, while Mr. Simao said the people, companies and groups he's worked with to prepare the building, Niel Katzman, Darryl Clemons, Rick See, All Kinds of Island Services in Alexandria Bay, Roadside Warriors vehicle services and Muleskinners motorcycle club all offered their help free of charge.

"I wasn't looking for that, but everybody is doing their part, which is a real nice thing to see," he said.

Any solution that gives the residents of the Main Avenue shelter a better option will take a significant amount of time and money to establish, Mr. Gray said, and even the warming center that has been proposed by the Salvation Army won't provide the right kind of long-term solution.

Mr. Simao said he would like to see a summit of city, county, state staff and the various local nonprofit support groups called within the next week or so, to see if they can improve on the temporary shelter with more support and take steps to provide a more permanent program.

"This is a city problem, a county problem, a community problem, a state problem and a nationwide problem," he said. "Nobody should be saying it's not their problem; this is everybody's."