Area program finding homeless people who need help getting back on right track
By Daniel Baldwin
The Utica Municipal Housing Authority provides safe, clean, and affordable housing opportunities to the homeless and other people who are earning a low income, according to uticamha.org.
But in order for the organization to fulfill its mission, it must first find these sorts of people throughout the city of Utica, and that is where one of the organization’s programs — Homeless Street Outreach — steps in.
Volunteers of the Homeless Street Outreach program walk around local parks, railroad tracks, soup kitchens, and food pantries trying to identify the traits homeless people possess, which includes people sleeping on the streets and benches or pushing a shopping cart full of his or her belongings.
“The city of Utica through its emergency solutions grants has provided funds to the housing authority to help identify homeless people in the city of Utica,” UMHA Director of Grants, Programs, Compliance, and Monitoring John Furman said.
“We go out daily into the parks, onto railroad tracks, into the area near the marsh (Utica Marsh Wildlife Management Area), and near the (New York State) Barge Canal looking for homeless people. We’ve been extremely successful in identifying people who are homeless,” he added.
Once the volunteer finds a homeless person, he or she first tries to establish a good friendship with that person, and when that friendship bond is established, the members then try to fix his or her homeless problem by moving them into a vacant and available apartment in the Utica area.
“Once we identify a person who’s homeless, we try to build a bond with them first,” Furman said. “Many of these folks have many challenges and we understand that many of them have been through very difficult life experiences. So we will create that relationship first with them that makes them feel welcome, and we will then try to connect them to housing and oftentimes emergency housing.”
Recently, the organization found a homeless veteran living in his truck, and in a week’s time, was able to place him into its own public housing units.
“Along with that, we provided that veteran with different kinds of services to make certain that he does not lapse back into homelessness,” he said. “So our Homeless Street Outreach program helps people to find immediate shelter.”
The program served about 50 homeless people during its inaugural year in 2019.
While the Homeless Street Outreach program and UMHA provide homes to the people in need, the organization’s members are also willing to help people fulfill their higher needs in life, like finding a new job, purchasing utilities, and paying their bills and rent on time, as well as becoming less reliant on benefit or welfare programs.
“Providing homeless services is within our mission of helping people to have save, secure, and affordable housing,” Furman said. “We also look at people through holistic terms. We understand that people are more than individuals who just need food or shelter. We also understand that they have higher needs. Everybody wants to have a job and people want to feel that they’re self-sufficient.
“People want to be able to make their own income. So along with housing, our job is to move people out of poverty, reduce a reliance on benefit programs, and have high-quality lives where they feel that they are part of the community.”
But in exchange for the program’s efforts in fulfilling less-fortunate peoples’ needs and providing them housing, volunteers also ask the former homeless person to become a member of the group and help those who are facing the same circumstances.
“What we try to do with our clients and residents is encourage them to give back to the community,” Furman said. “Some of our homeless people make our best volunteers because they lived through the experience. They lived through tough times and now they really want to give back to the community.
“They want to help others with similar issues, and they have a lot of street wisdom, which they can share, Furman said. “They could be great motivational speakers that could inspire people and get people excited about changing their circumstances. So we really believe a lot in everyone giving back to the community.”
In his 18 years at UHMA, Furman said his experience working there has been gratifying, as he has been very fortunate to work for a group dedicated to helping the poor.
“I feel very blessed to work for the Utica Municipal Housing Authority,” Furman said, “and being able to help each day. I derive great satisfaction from helping others, and I think that at the end of the day I can feel that I made a difference and done something to make our community better.”
“It’s more than a job working here at the housing authority,” he noted.