Temporary homeless shelter may not be so temporary; over 20 people staying at former Dealmaker auto garage

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WATERTOWN — Jefferson County’s first emergency shelter has proven popular, growing to host over 20 displaced and homeless people within the first five days of its opening.

The impromptu shelter on Main Avenue, in the building that once housed Dealmaker Auto Group’s body shop, has heat, cots, running water and functioning bathrooms, more than what its current residents would have access to otherwise. Officials and those involved in running the informal shelter said it is far from perfect, but there’s really no other option at this moment.

“We are at what I would call near crisis levels,” said Scott A. Gray, Jefferson County legislator and Assemblyman-elect. “There are no near-term alternatives; this is the only option we have.”

Mr. Gray has taken point in coordinating the emergency shelter, connecting with various agencies and individuals to make it come together last week and continuing to step in to help administer the shelter when possible.

The shelter opened Friday, as a historic snowstorm pummeled the city of Watertown. A group of about 15 displaced and homeless people were sheltering at the Butler Pavilion in the J.B. Wise parking lot, just off of the Black River Parkway in downtown Watertown. A group of local residents had donated food, heating fuel and tarps to protect the people there from the worst of the storm, but conditions were still unlivable.

Local businessowner P.J. Simao, who owns a number of buildings around the city, said he saw how bad conditions were getting Thursday night into Friday, and got in touch with Mr. Gray to offer his building on Main Avenue, just across the river from the pavilion.

“It’s not the Taj Mahal by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s got four walls, a roof, it has lights and plumbing,” Mr. Simao said.

But the facility’s current residents, who came to the building from a variety of places, said they’re grateful for what the community has given them, and are happy to be off the streets. They’ve come from all walks of life, some only recently without permanent housing and others who’ve spent years in and out of housing insecurity. Many have substance abuse disorder, addictions, mental or physical illnesses, but others said they found themselves slipping out of housing security purely because of economic concerns, high rents and low wages.

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