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Profile: Local Nonprofit Fights Homelessness

Agency helps those down on their luck get back on their feet.

Homelessness can be the result of a wide range of issues; bad luck is sometimes as much to blame as are mental health problems, addiction or irresponsible choices. The high cost of living on Long Island is unforgiving, with a lack of affordable housing that leaves a person in crisis with few options.

Rosemary Dehlow oversees a Patchogue office that works to offer more options. She is director of the Long Island branch of Community Housing Innovations, Inc. (CHI), a nonprofit based in White Plains, N. Y. that also serves Westchester and the Hudson Valley region.

CHI provides housing assistance services on a continuum ranging from emergency housing for the homeless to grants for first time home buyers. The bulk of the work, says Dehlow, is case management for clients with immediate housing needs - often people facing homelessness. Applications come in from State Department of Social Services (DSS) shelters and hospitals, and CHI decides which cases to take.

Suffolk County's homeless population is growing, Dehlow says. The most recent data on the website of Long Island Coalition for the Homeless put the number at 1,697 adults and children as of January 2010.

Many people in need of assistance are often working members of the community whose meager wages barely get them by, says Dehlow.

"They're the cashiers, the cleaners, the people who work those minimum-wage jobs," she says. "There just isn't enough housing on Long Island that somebody making $8 an hour can realistically afford along with all their other expenses."

If circumstances change suddenly in such cases - a layoff, a suspension, an added expense that cuts into the rent money - some find themselves with no place to stay. For them, homelessness is a temporary state, not a lifestyle. Navigating the DSS system can be embarrassing, confusing and intimidating, so CHI's case managers are there to see to it that clients take the necessary steps to get the help they need.

Barbara Oliver, 45, is a single mother currently living in one of CHI's shelters. She was suspended without pay from her job at the Long Island State Veteran's Home at Stony Brook in August over charges she is currently fighting, she says. She has an attorney and says she expects to return once the issue is resolved.

In the meantime, she must keep a roof over her and her 17-year-old daughter's heads.

"We were staying with friends at first," she says, "but they had a son about my daughter's age and they didn't get along, so it wasn't working out."

Told that she could remain but her daughter had to leave, and with drug activity present in the home, Oliver says, she looked to DSS for help. She was placed in a motel before she was moved to one of CHI's family shelters.

"I've never had to deal with people like this," Oliver says of social services workers. She says the experience can be frustrating and embarrassing, but her case manager at CHI, Christine Boudreau, is "very kind" and is always only a phone call away. Boudreau helped her navigate the system, and she and Oliver found a residence that Oliver hopes to move into in two weeks.

"I couldn't ask for a better client," Boudreau says of Oliver, who she calls polite and helpful with cleaning around the shelter. "Probably one of my best," says Boudreau.

Audrey Jenkins, 44, is another single mother using CHI to find a home for herself and her teen-aged daughter.

"You don't have to be a bum to fall on hard times," she says. "You could be a regular working person and something can go wrong."

Jenkins went on unemployment for a year after losing her job at a Wal-Mart pharmacy. Despite her landlord's patience, making the $650 monthly rent was becoming impossible as her income was stretched thin.

With CHI's help, Jenkins is now hoping to occupy a one-bedroom apartment in Patchogue as she trains to be a substance abuse counselor.

"I have no intention of staying on public assistance, you hear me?" she says with a chuckle.

Jenkins appreciates the treatment she receives from CHI's staff and her case manager, who she says she can call any time.

"They don't treat you like you're a homeless person," she says.

CHI currently houses about 80 individuals and 100 families, defined as at least one adult and one child, in the shelters it runs. The agency works with another 50 individuals and 110 families in permanent housing, helping with rent for clients committed to self-sufficiency.

CHI also works to create some of that housing, currently operating a 15-unit apartment complex in East Patchogue that had been converted from an old motel. The site had a reputation for violence and police activity before CHI took it over in the early 1990's, according to CHI's executive director, Alex Roberts.

Roberts says his organization worked with Patchogue's mayor and the community to clean the property up and turn it into affordable housing that doesn't detract from the surrounding area.

"It just proves that the issue is management, not whether people are homeless or not," Roberts says of integrating clients into the community. "Residents know they can call me. It represents a good time for me to make sure we're doing our job. I have a great fondness for the people living and working around the complex."

One client who has integrated successfully into her new neighborhood is Paula, who asked that her last name not be used so as not to endanger her job at a law firm. She has been a CHI client for three years, and now occupies a three-bedroom home in Patchogue with two of her four children.

Paula, 40, has a history of cocaine and heroine abuse and unhealthy relationships with men that stretches back 20 years. She stayed with friends, lived in a tent, ran afoul of the law and lived in hiding as she got high and relied on abusive men to be her support. She committed herself to sobriety after finding out she was pregnant in jail five years ago. Now she sits in her meticulously clean kitchen and speaks candidly about her former life.

"My family wouldn't even trust me in their home. Now my sister's calling to ask if she can drop her kids off at my place," she says.

When drug activity became a problem in her neighborhood, Paula helped organize other residents to address the issue. Dehlow calls her a leader in her community.

"Paula has the personal responsibility that the Welfare Reform Act of '96 talked about," Dehlow says.

Paula regards CHI as more than an agency.

"They're not just landlords," she says. "They're like a support group."

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