OSWEGO, NY – The face of homelessness in Oswego is beautiful, framed by dark brown hair. It is also vulnerable. Its voice is soft, couched in youthful innocence. Yet it is passionate and wise well beyond its years.
At this month’s Oswego County Legislature meeting, Emily Bradshaw spoke out on what she describes as ‘a nearly invisible’ problem – homelessness.
The 12-year-old Port City resident said she wanted to address the legislators regarding the issue of homelessness in Oswego County and the lack of a shelter for those in need.
“This is a very important and serious matter. When I discovered that Oswego did not have a homeless shelter, I was upset. ‘How could this be?’ I thought. So, I started asking questions and writing letters to the mayor, my alderman, and all of you, the legislators. I also spoke to the Police Chief, and staff from the Oswego City School District,” she said.
What she found out left her “heartbroken,” she told the legislators.
She received a response back from Oswego Mayor Tom Gillen and her councilor, both acknowledging that there is a need, but no solution.
She also received several letters and phone calls from legislators, some telling her about programs that already exist, and the lack of funding for anything new. Legislator Margaret Kastler encouraged Emily to contact DSS Commissioner Gregg Heffner.
“These programs are wonderful and they help many people. But they have limited funds, requirements, and lots of paperwork. They do not fill the need for a shelter, a safe place to go for a hot dinner and warm bed,” the youngster said.
She learned that Social Services placed 263 people in emergency temporary housing due to homelessness in 2011.
“I felt sad. I felt sad for those people. But, I felt worse for all the countless people that didn’t have the courage or the means to ask for help. If 263 people did ask, imagine how many did not!” she said. “When I spoke with the Oswego City Police Department, they told me that homelessness has been on the rise over the last five years. That every year they are seeing more and more people on the streets, including teens. We need a shelter.”
Brian Hartwell, principal of Oswego High School told her that at any given time at least two dozen kids in the school would be considered homeless. They are “couch surfers.”
“They go from house to house staying with people as long as they can before they wear out their welcome. Then they move on,” Emily said. “They have no stability, no security. We need a shelter.”
Mrs. Chalet Dewey-Flint, the social worker at Oswego Middle School, documented 15 families last school year as being homeless, Emily pointed out.
“She said many families double up and live together in small crowded apartments or trailers. She said even with Public Assistance families are having a hard time finding affordable housing. She suggested I talk to Alise Fleming, the homeless coordinator for the Oswego City School district. I didn’t know we had a homeless coordinator. How could we need a homeless coordinator but not a shelter? Obviously, we need a shelter!” she said; the remark drawing some polite laughter from the legislators.
Heather Lewis, a teacher at Leighton Elementary School, which is considered a low income focus school, told Emily homelessness affects her students every year.
“These children have trouble focusing and can have behavior problems. School is not a priority to these children; they are worried about where they will be sleeping tonight and if there will be dinner,” Emily said, adding, “We need a shelter!”
She said she loves Oswego and has seen great things happen in her hometown.
She pointed to the huge support for the St. Baldrick’s events where scores of people come together and shave their heads to raise money for childhood cancer research. It is something she has taken part in. She’s seen people come together and help families suffering with cancer, or a fire, or a death of a loved one, she continued.
“I saw East First Street lined with hundreds of people to honor and salute Kyle Rookey home. I was there. I didn’t know him, but it was a privilege to welcome him home. Oswego is a great town,” she said. “So, if Oswego is as great as I think, how has homelessness been overlooked? Even with all of the many great programs, so many people are still falling through the cracks.”
She told the legislature she has a good idea why.
“Homeless is nearly invisible. It is easy not to see. There is no face to it, no voice. So with all of the love in my heart and with great courage, I will be their face, I will be their voice!” Emily vowed. “When you think of homelessness think of me! Think of me sleeping on a dirty floor, think of me going hungry every night. Hear my voice begging you for a shelter! My voice is crying to you for help.”
She urged the legislators and the public to come together as a community to solve this “crisis.”
“I am asking you all as leaders of the community to lead the way. If we all work together anything is possible. Opening a homeless shelter IS possible,” she said. “As Dr. Seuss once said, “Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.”
“When she is old enough to run for office, any challengers would be wise to move out of her district,” Chairman Fred Beardsley quipped as the young lady walked back to her seat as the legislature gave her a rousing standing ovation.
Emily and Commissioner Heffner had a talk prior to the meeting.
He is very impressed with Emily and offered to include her in the next meeting discussing homelessness, and introduce her to department heads at DSS.
“Emily was very happy about that. She wants to stay involved,” said her mother, Jennifer. “Emily was also pleased to meet Diane Cooper-Currier, executive director of OCO. Diane gave Emily information about COACH, a newly formed coalition to combat homelessness. Emily will be involved in every way she can with COACH as well.”
Members of COACH, which stands for County of Oswego Advocates Challenging Homelessness, includes representatives from Oswego County’s human service agencies, local elected officials, concerned community members and government officials. The committee works to raise the awareness of, and find effective ways to address, the issue of homelessness in Oswego County. For more information on COACH and its efforts to address homelessness in Oswego County, call the United Way office at 315-593-1900.
The three of them also discussed immediate needs of the homeless and what Emily could do right now.
They decided that a great project would be for her to start collecting personal care items and make up personal care bags to hand out to the homeless when they come to DSS or OCO for help.
Emily said she’d like to have some of these available in the schools for the social workers or nurses to hand out to kids in need.
“When people come to DSS for emergency shelter, DSS puts a roof over their head and gives them a food voucher. But that is all. The rest takes time for food stamps etc., so these personal care items really are essential,” Jennifer added.”
Emily has written the governor, and so far no response. She said she’d continue to write him until she gets heard.
Oswego School Superintendent Bill Crist was also at the county meeting.
He was very impressed with Emily’s speech and wants to set up a meeting with her to talk. Emily said she will use that meeting to encourage him to join the fight for a shelter and to see about collecting the personal care items in all schools in the district.
If anyone is interested in donating, Emily will be collecting shampoo, bar soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant, lotion, razors, shave cream, baby shampoo, hair combs/brushes, baby powder and other items.
For more information, email [email protected]