Homelessness in Owego

Homelessness in OwegoMatthew and his dog, Tyson, are pictured at the Courthouse Gazebo in Owego, N.Y. On July 12 Matthew offered an interview, found at https://youtu.be/Lf7nzYFk1xw, about homeless life on the streets of Owego. (Photo by Wendy Post)

On May 11, 2023, a State of Emergency was declared in Tioga County, N.Y. regarding the possible arrival of migrants and / or asylum seekers. Within the context of the order, the Legislative Chair, Martha Sauerbrey, explained that the State of Emergency is due to a housing crisis the County of Tioga is experiencing, and the lack of temporary and permanent housing, as well as transitional services available.

This State of Emergency has been extended several times, to include the most recent declaration issued on July 19, 2023 that remains in effect thru July 24, 2023.

This emergency order has been met with support, but has also sparked some outcry from area residents to include Max Della Pia, former congressional candidate and resident of Owego, N.Y. Della Pia had drafted a letter to the county’s legislative Chair, Martha Sauerbrey, asking that the county take action, and to work with federal and state governments to accommodate immigrants and asylum seekers.

Some of the recommendations by Della Pia included the pursuit of temporary housing, transportation resources and recreational services, as well as working with Federal Housing and Urban Development to lay out a game plan for housing for immigrants granted asylum.

The letter further expressed hopes that legislators would help solve these problems with creativity, empathy, and compassion. The letter, in its entirety, was signed by over 60 members of the community, and as a show of support to Della Pia.

In an effort to understand the complexity of the housing situation and the uptick of homelessness being experienced within Tioga County, N.Y., and specifically Owego, N.Y., we researched the current situation as a start.

To offer a quick look for comparison, in New York City, as cited by a June 28, 2023 New York Times article, the homeless count numbered over 100,000 and the city, according to the same report, said that the number of migrants in shelters had surpassed 50,000. Tioga County’s emergency order temporarily prohibits hotels, organizations, and others from contracting to receive migrants and asylum seekers, and as organizations assemble to tackle the county’s current influx of homelessness, locally. The same New York Times article continued to suggest that migrants would be sent to other counties within New York State.

One might conclude that the county’s navigation of the current homeless population will prepare them for any influx of migrants and asylum seekers down the road; but the infrastructure, resources and services, at this time, just aren’t available, as evidenced by the agency interviews within the context of this story.

But there is hope! And as one homeless resident, Tammy, stated in an interview on July 18, 2023, “Having hope is better than having nothing at all.”

Tammy’s story is one of several highlighted here, and as the community learns to adapt to an influx in the area’s homeless population.

Homelessness in Owego

Matthew and his dog, Tyson, are pictured at the Courthouse Gazebo in Owego, N.Y. On July 12 Matthew offered an interview, found at https://youtu.be/Lf7nzYFk1xw, about homeless life on the streets of Owego. (Photo by Wendy Post)

Matthew and Tyson

On a hot July day, 30-year-old Matthew and his dog, Tyson, were catching some shade rest inside of the newly painted gazebo on the Courthouse Square. Alongside Matthew sat an older gentleman that didn’t care to disclose his name or talk too much. He quietly watched the traffic and the people walking by.

As for Matthew, he offered up an interview, which can be viewed at https://youtu.be/Lf7nzYFk1xw. In this interview Matthew talks about homelessness, how he adapts, how many he believes are among the homeless, locally, and a bit of what life is like living on the streets of Owego, N.Y.

Matthew, originally from the area, returned to Owego to be with and help out his father. In the meantime, his relationship in South Carolina was failing, and his father passed. Matthew, along with his rescue dog, has found himself homeless.

Homelessness in Owego

Matthew and his dog, Tyson, catch some shade on a hot day in July at the Courthouse Square in Owego, N.Y. (Photo by Wendy Post)

Homelessness and the Housing Crisis

Another homeless woman we interviewed earlier last week had a similar situation of serving as a caretaker, and until the person they were residing with passed; leading her eventually to homelessness. This particular woman was literally dropped off in downtown Owego.

She now joins the homeless population in Owego; moving from place to place until she can get into court back home and reunited with her family. Numbers were also added to the count when groups sent to Tioga County from Chemung and Steuben Counties earlier this year filled up any sparse emergency shelters available.

According to Kelly Kelley, Principal Welfare examiner for the Department of Social Services in Tioga County, the lack of affordable housing within the county as well as shelters for the homeless is a big problem in this situation.

There are approximately eight beds at the Open Door Mission in Owego that are specifically for men; A New Hope Center, a domestic violence shelter, is at 100% capacity, with 19 households, including children, served this year; and a transitional home, operated by Catholic Charities Tioga Outreach in Apalachin provides sober living for women with children, and with five adults and one child currently being served.

According to Kelley, there were 41 homeless individuals recorded by the agency in 2018; in 2022 that number jumped to 108, and at the tail end of the pandemic. For 2023 this number is expected to be much higher. Tioga County does not have any homeless migrants or asylum seekers at this time, Kelley added.

“These are just the individuals that we know about,” said Kelley in an interview on Tuesday, July 18, adding, “It doesn’t include individuals that are couch surfing or staying at someone’s home; they don’t get counted as homeless, so this number is likely much higher.”

Because of the lack of affordable housing in the area, however, many individuals are often referred to shelters outside of the county if needed, or directed to available services.

This work is done in cooperation with many outside agencies. For domestic violence cases involving women, referrals are made to A New Hope Center, who then begins a search process for available beds on their end if they are at capacity.

For women with children needing housing and assistance, individuals are often referred to a new transitional home in Apalachin, operated by Catholic Charities Tioga Outreach.

Kelley also noted that individuals who receive assistance are not able to afford the high cost of rent. “One person can’t afford a place to live on the assistance given,” said Kelley, which adds to the issues surrounding the lack of affordable housing.

As for shelters, most have restrictions as well, requiring sober living or enrollment in a treatment program.

The Homeless Count

Back to the homeless community, and outside of the numbers that are set to exceed last year’s count of 108, agencies are, and have been, in motion.

Jo DeFulvio, director of programming for Catholic Charities Tioga Outreach, talked about a recently conducted needs assessment, with the largest in demand being housing.

As options, locally, she highlighted Owego Gardens as affordable and exclusive to the disabled and elderly. Another housing development, located behind Owego Gardens on Owego’s south side, is Owego Square, offering affordable housing to individuals. Their offices can be reached by calling (607) 223-4014.

Homelessness in Owego

Owego Square, located on Southside Drive and behind Owego Gardens, offers affordable housing for area residents. Their offices can be reached by calling (607) 223-4014. (Photo by Wendy Post)

For Catholic Charities Tioga Outreach, their agenda has been an aggressive one to combat homelessness and provide services. The organization participated in the PIT, or homeless count, earlier this year. They also received HUD funding to help homeless individuals transition.

“We can financially assist them in their transition for up to a year,” said DeFulvio.

The organization’s latest venture, a transitional home, recently opened in Apalachin and offers women and children shelter in a sober environment.

Challenges of Homelessness

For the current unsheltered population in Owego, cell phone charging seems to be an issue and the lack of a “physical address” for direct mail, although DSS noted that homeless individuals receiving support from the agency can utilize their address for associated paperwork.

For people like Sister Mary O’Brien, director for Tioga County Rural Ministry, and Michelle McLaren, who provides outreach development for Catholic Charities Tioga Outreach, the increase in homelessness is presenting challenges, as well as an opportunity to serve.

Sister Mary agrees that affordable housing is a huge issue, and noted that any available housing for low-income individuals is very hard to find.

Every Wednesday TCRM makes a delivery of food to the Sunrise and Deep Well Motels in Owego. She noted that meals are quite specific as the rooms usually only provide a microwave for those sheltered there.

Sister Mary is also feeling the homelessness trend’s impact through an increase in referral services, and renders guidance when possible. She spoke of a transport from another county earlier this year, and where the individuals transported into Tioga County were literally dropped off. These individuals needed emergency assistance at that point, as well as guidance.

Homelessness in Owego

Pictured is the common kitchen area at a transitional home for women and children in Apalachin, N.Y. Five adults and one child are currently being served. (Photo by Wendy Post)

Michelle McLaren works with larger coalitions geared to combat homelessness, and their organization is searching for ways to provide affordable housing and transitional services. And although these are large scale projects, those that want to help in even a small way, like carrying protein bars and extra water to hand out when needed, can make a difference. “These are small ways people can help,” said McLaren.

Fran Bialy, executive director for A New Hope Center, reported that ANHC’s emergency shelters are also at 100% capacity, at the time of this reporting, and that so far this year they have had to turn away 98 calls. Bialy added that the domestic violence shelter has provided 19 households with shelter so far this year, and is licensed for nine beds.

ANHC also spends time on referrals, and searching for shelters that have available space. Bialy also cited high rent as one of the catalysts behind homelessness.

The police also interact with the homeless population from time to time; although the Police Chief, Joseph Kennedy, noted that if they are called to an individual’s property because someone is trespassing they have to ask them to leave.

On the other side of the coin, the Police Chief is also networking with local agencies, like Catholic Charities Tioga Outreach and TCRM, to help connect individuals with services. The OPD and their Chaplain, Pastor Jay Geistdorfer of Owego’s Nazarene Church, are often “boots on the ground” as they work to ensure safety among the homeless population and offer assistance and referrals, when possible.

The Homeless Plight

For those that are homeless, only someone that has walked in their shoes can understand their plight.

Homelessness in Owego

The outside patio area at a transitional home in Apalachin offers a peaceful setting. (Photo by Wendy Post)

We interviewed four homeless individuals in Owego, with each having their own unique story and challenge. Matthew, who we mentioned earlier, also talked about what takes place in the homeless population, and how trust is important when you live on the streets. Oftentimes, Matthew explained, “bad actors” will victimize the homeless, or criminals let out on the streets because of the bail reform laws. Many have found it necessary to move in numbers.

In one call, Owego Police officials went to an area where a small encampment had formed, noting approximately 45 gathered in an area near a creek. Matthew spoke in his live interview of several “camps” as well, and continued to note the problems that can exist for them.

He also spoke of the judgment that people place on the entire homeless population.

“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” said 30-year-old Matthew in a live interview with The Owego Pennysaver Press on July 12, adding, “At least read a couple of pages first.”

Forty-six year old Tammy has been residing in a homeless shelter since February; and although she found things difficult in the beginning she is now starting to feel a sense of peace. Coming out of a not so peaceful situation, and now separated from her family and home, Tammy is spending time focusing on herself and getting back on track.

Kelly Kelley, from DSS, referred Tammy to the shelter she continues to reside in.

Homelessness in Owego

Tammy, a homeless resident being sheltered in Apalachin, holds a glass she painted last week. Anita Martin, from Classy Glass by Anita, visited the shelter recently to offer some activities, like the craft pictured here. (Photo by Wendy Post)

During an interview with Tammy at the shelter on July 18, 2023, she sat back in a chair, neatly dressed, and offered some insight into how she was feeling at this point in her life, a point of homelessness. And although her feelings couldn’t be summed up, they were so aptly stated when she was asked what “hope” looked like, for her.

She humbly replied, “Hope is better than nothing.”

Sitting on a back porch with the countryside as a literal backdrop, Tammy is hanging onto that hope along with the other women that share the transitional home.

Catholic Charities Tioga Outreach is always looking for mentors for their residents, or folks that would like to lend a hand. You can contact Jo DeFulvio at (607) 206-5335 to learn more.

Migrants waiting in the wings

Regarding the movement of migrants and asylum seekers in New York, our leaders in Albany are working to address the affordable housing crisis. On July 18, Governor Kathy Hochul announced the identification of state owned sites for potential residential uses, to include a former Downstate Correctional Facility in Fishkill, N.Y.

Governor Hochul also announced several executive actions last week to promote housing growth in an effort to address New York’s housing crisis, largely driven by a severe housing shortage. 

The actions include a program to advance residential projects halted by the expiration of 421-A; an executive order establishing preference in certain discretionary funding programs for localities across the state that comply with a new “Pro-Housing Community” certification process; a new requirement that all State entities identify the potential for their state-owned lands to support housing; recent and forthcoming regulatory initiatives to identify opportunities for greater efficiencies to promote housing growth; and the launch of the beta version of a new, interactive portal to collect and share community-level housing and zoning data and information on an ongoing basis.  

To read the press releases in their entirety, visit www.governor.ny.gov/news/governor-hochul-announces-new-executive-action-housing-crisis-increase-supply-create.


The interviews and data obtained for this story was gathered over a period of seven days, with some of the sourced data being accurate as of the date of this reporting, if not specified otherwise.

We also encourage readers to view the recorded interview at https://youtu.be/Lf7nzYFk1xw. We had additional interviews scheduled, but they either fell through, or communication became difficult because of cell phone charging issues. We expect to have more on this story, and any developments regarding the county’s State of Emergency as the summer heats up. 

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