Suffolk overhauls homeless shelter program

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Suffolk County's social services department is overhauling its homeless shelter program, increasing the number of large shelters in a move designed to cut costs and expand services, according to the agency's acting head.

The county has long relied on a network of some 30 privately run shelters that can house up to 10 families each, and used motel rooms when shelters were full.

Under plans developed over the past two years, the county has begun to place families in three large-scale shelters run by nonprofits that can house up to 85 families. Previously, Suffolk had used one large shelter.

Acting Social Services Commissioner John O'Neill told county legislators recently that the move allows for "more services to be delivered in a more centralized location. . . . The department is delivering more services at a lower cost."

But some county lawmakers are questioning whether bigger is better when it comes to curbing chronic homelessness.

"On paper it seems like it could be better," said Legis. DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville), chairman of the legislature's Human Services committee, where O'Neill outlined the program on May 23. "But my main question is when you have so many people, how do you really monitor all those people and make sure they are getting the help they need?"

Under state regulations, the larger facilities must provide on-site programs such as day care, medical services and adult education to homeless families with children, O'Neill said.

Last year, Suffolk spent $40 million to house about 1,800 homeless adults and children. The county is trying to minimize the upfront costs that are later reimbursed entirely by the state.

While the county has not yet estimated the total cost savings, the average cost to house a person per night at one of the smaller shelters is $102, compared with $43 at the three larger shelters, said social services spokesman John Nieves.

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Suffolk houses about 450 homeless families, down from 517 in 2010 before the economy had begun to turn around, according to figures from the Long Island Homeless Coalition, an advocacy group that conducts an annual census of the homeless in Nassau and Suffolk.

Nassau uses 23 smaller homeless shelters and motels to house some 900 homeless individuals, according to county and coalition figures. Nassau Department of Social Services spokeswoman Karen Garber said the system is "working and there are no immediate plans to revamp" the program.

Gregory noted that he has several of the smaller shelters in his district. He questioned whether the larger facilities would be able to match their record in providing personalized "family-like" services to help families get back on their feet.

Legis. Kate Browning (WF-Shirley), vice chairwoman of the human services committee, expressed concern about whether officials at the larger shelters would be able to track families to ensure they make the transition to permanent housing.

O'Neill said the county sends inspectors to the different sites to ensure they are complying with state standards, as it does with smaller shelters.Alexander Roberts, executive director of Community Housing Initiatives, a nonprofit with offices in Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester counties that runs one of the larger shelters, said despite the size of the facilities, residents have access to case managers and housing specialists to help secure job training and affordable housing.

"Overall, we feel that the larger facility will help people get out faster," Roberts said. "We believe in moving people. The primary goal of emergency housing is to get people housed temporarily, not to keep them there long term."O'Neill said some of the smaller facilities would remain in use because the trio of larger shelters cannot house all 450 homeless families. Small shelters also will be needed for single homeless residents and those households without children.

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