Q & A with Amy Turner

Number of runaway and homeless teens has quadrupled in the region since 2019, says director of Mohawk Valley Community Action Agency. She discusses what the agency does to help alleviate poverty in the region

by David L. Podos

Q: Let’s get a little bit of your professional background history. How long have you been executive director of Mohawk Valley Community Action Agency?

A: I have been the executive director for 26 years. I started my career working for Community Action at their Cayuga-Seneca location as an outreach worker where I eventually moved my way up to homeless program manager. In Onondaga County I worked for Peace Incorporated which is a community action agency. In that agency I was director of planning and program development. In 1987 a position came open here for an executive director and I have been here ever since.

Q: What are the main services that you offer?

A: We have four components. First, we have child development which is Head Start, early Head Start, as well as home-based Head Start where we go into the home and work with the families and that by the way starts at pregnancy — all the way through pre-school age. We also have contracts with some of the school districts to do universal pre-K, so we combine head start and universal pre-K together. Then we have family resources, now I like to refer to family resources as the “front door” to the agency. That is where our CAAPS (community action access points) are located in Rome, Ilion and Utica. With that program we assist families and individuals with whatever needs they are facing. For example, they might need assistance in finding new housing and or assistance with rent, help with a security deposit, purchasing food, help with applying for food stamps or HEAP, (Home Energy Assistance Program). Our goal is to get those clients the help that they need.

Q: Do you provide any assistance with people besieged with alcohol or drug addiction?

A: Not directly. We will however connect someone to those services so they can get that help with professionals who are specialists in that field of care. We also offer a foster grandparent program. These are volunteers 55 and older who work in a classroom setting with a student who might be going through some struggles. The volunteer becomes that kids adopted foster grandparent, not in the legal sense, but more so as a mentor to that child. We are the only agency locally that has a program like this. Our outcome analysis clearly shows that the foster grandparent program improves the children’s learning capabilities as well as improves their overall mental health. Our last component of services is our youth program. In that program we do a lot of work with runaway youth and homeless youth.

Q: Many people might not realize that a city the size of Utica has a youth homeless problem, thinking that only happens in much larger cities. But we do have a problem, don’t we?

A: Absolutely. The number of youths who come to us for help that are runaways or are homeless has quadrupled since the beginning of COVID-19. We can provide temporary shelter for these kids, give them food, etc. Through our networking system we will get them to those professionals who can further assist them. Last year we worked with more than 100 homeless youths, and are on track to meet and or surpass that number by years end. We have a 24/7 runaway hotline for people to call it is 315-525-7276.

Q: How many staff do you employ?

A: We have, as of this interview, about 240 employees full-time and about 60 part-time.

Q: Where does the funding come to operate your agency?

A: Most of our funding is federal. So, for example our head start program, which by the way is our largest funding source, comes directly from the office of Head Start. We have a grant called Community Services Block Grant that defines us as a community action agency and that money comes out of the federal government and is administered by New York state. Overall we are close to 90% federally funded.

Q: If someone needed help and they wanted to reach you what number would they call?

A: Sure, that number is 315-624-9930. When you call that number a receptionist will answer, take some basic information, then pass you over to one of our resource specialists who will go through a more detailed inquiry on what your needs are and the services we have that can offer assistance.

Q: If someone wanted to go onto your website what is that site?

A: mvcca.com. On the site we have all of our services as well as any upcoming events. If someone is looking for help and does not want to call us, we have an intake application they can pull up from the site, fill that out and send to us, all strictly confidential.