Jefferson County’s homelessness committee announces recommendations for local solutions

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Jefferson County’s Homeless Project Steering Committee has made its final recommendations on how to address homelessness and housing insecurity.

In a wide-ranging presentation on Wednesday at the Children’s Home of Jefferson County’s State Street campus, some of the key members of the committee announced the product of over a year’s worth of research, brainstorming, outreach and meetings.

Recommendations include steps that have already been taken, such as establishing a warming center like the Salvation Army’s and a single-resident occupancy program like Transitional Living Service’s Pine Street facility.

Others, like a community of small single-person rooms, made of portable units assembled as a “pallet community,” or a rapidly-deployable emergency shelter to house 50 people in an emergency, have yet to be developed.

The scope of the issue is broad: Theresa M. Gaffney, Jefferson County’s Department of Social Services Commissioner, reported that DSS interacted with 499 people in need of housing assistance in 2022, compared to 244 in 2018, before the COVID-19 pandemic. Trends since the pre-pandemic era have made housing even more scarce, locally and nationally. According to data collected by the housing committee’s data subcommittee, in early 2020 the Watertown zip code had the second-highest number of owner-vacated properties in the nation, meaning the city saw a huge wave of property vacancies that have since been filled or abandoned. At the same time, rent prices in the region dropped steeply, before more than doubling through the end of 2020 and into 2021.

Rents have increased significantly while wages have not increased as fast, especially since 2020, and occupancy of officially-recognized ‘affordable housing’ in Jefferson County hovers around 98%, leaving very few affordable units available. For renters in Jefferson County as of 2018, nearly half were paying more than 30% of their annual income for rent, while nearly 20% of homeowners were paying more than 30% of their income on housing costs like mortgage payments and property taxes.

As they have regularly explained for months, the committee has visualized the path to housing stability as a ladder, with emergency shelter like the warming center as the first rung and long-term, permanent housing at the top. The rungs in-between are different for each person, with some relying only on services to improve their economic situation, and others needing help with physical or mental health challenges.

On Wednesday, the committee’s members said they were proud to see that progress has been made since the crisis level of homelessness seen in 2021, but more needs to be done to address the key underlying issues, to help those still in need and ensure a crisis never again occurs.

“Ultimately, this steering committee that has been in place for the past few months is going to be passing the baton,” said Jefferson County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann, III, a member of the committee. “As we’re talking about problem solving, we’re going to give serious recommendations for the next generation engaged in this position.”

Many of the more than 60 people in attendance at Wednesday’s meeting will be the “next generation” of people dedicated to working on the issue of homelessness in Jefferson County; all four Watertown city councilmembers and the city manager; a handful of Jefferson County legislators; a representative of Assemblyman Scott A. Gray’s office and a litany of staff and executives from local nonprofit and public benefit agencies.

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