FULTON, NY – For many, the picture of homelessness is someone living on the street with what few possessions they own stuffed in plastic bags and trying to find any shelter they can from the elements.
The reality however is that homelessness exists in many forms.
Some do indeed live on the streets, but far more move from house to house spending a night or two at a time with a friend or family member. They have no home to call their home, and do not have the means to find one.
For the growing number of families and individuals that find themselves in these situations homeless programs offered through Oswego County’s human services agencies provide them with the hope and assistance they need to overcome their homelessness.
For ‘Mary,’ the homeless services of Oswego County Opportunities helped her achieve her dream of having a home for herself and her daughter.
I met with Mary recently to discuss her journey from homeless to independence and how the services she received helped turn her life around.
Diagnosed with bipolar anxiety disorder Mary worked for many years at temporary jobs.
Despite having a bachelor’s degree in English Mary’s anxiety with testing and paperwork kept her from settling in at a long-term, full-time job.
With the help of prescription medication Mary moved forward and achieved her goal of gaining fulltime employment when she became a keyboard specialist with a Syracuse area hospital.
To her dismay, Mary’s bipolar and anxiety issues resurfaced. She began to miss work and the anxiety became too much.
She felt she could not go back to work and was receiving treatment for her diagnosis. The combination of little income and an impending rent increase on her apartment left Mary and her daughter with nowhere to call home.
A neighbor allowed Mary to stay at their house while they were out of town, but it was for a short period of time.
When her mother suffered a stroke Mary and her daughter moved into her mother’s house to care for her. The house was small, Mary slept on a twin bed in the living room and her daughter slept on a couch with her clothes in storage bins.
To compound the situation, the amount of time Mary was unable to work led to her termination and her anxiety issues made it very difficult to process the necessary paperwork to apply for disability insurance. When she was denied disability insurance Mary no longer was able to see her doctor or receive her medication.
“It became a chaotic situation,” said Mary. “No income, no Medicaid and off my meds. It was a disaster. I could not afford my meds or the doctor visits and as a result I was not thinking clearly and making good decisions. My life was a mess. I thought do I give up? Am I that disabled that I can’t work? I didn’t think of myself as homeless. I had this idea in my head about what homeless was and it was not me living at my mMom’s house. I didn’t realize I am homeless.”
The stress of her current living conditions became more than she could bear.
Her daughter was acting out at school and having other troubles.
The counselor at her daughter’s school suggested that Mary consider contacting OCO’s homeless services.
“OCO was wonderful,” said Mary. “It was amazing the things they did for me. They lifted my spirits. I felt ashamed and had no sense of dignity and thought that I shouldn’t be in this situation. Katie Batchelor (a runaway and homeless youth advocate with OCO Homeless Services), who was my contact at OCO, never made me feel bad about my situation. She was always happy to talk to me and make me feel like I was the best part of her day. I didn’t feel like I was just another client. Katie treated me with respect and she made me feel some respect for myself and regain my self-esteem. I thought people that needed these services were users and that I was a user. I now realize that there are people in need and there are people who help. The connection with Katie made me feel like somebody cares. I called and she called back. I didn’t fall through any cracks.”
As you read this, Mary and her daughter have settled into their own apartment and are making a home for themselves.
Back on her meds and having received clearance from her doctor, Mary is once again back at her job as a keyboard specialist. Her daughter now has her own room with a place to put her belongings and for the first time in her life, furniture she can call her own.
Her life is back in order, Mary is proud to say she is self-sufficient.
“Once I got back on my feet the first thing I did was cancel my DSS benefits. I didn’t want to take something from someone else who needs it. It was the right thing to do! I’m very fortunate. I have job with a living wage and a retirement plan! I have paid off by past bills and Katie helped me establish a budget plan that allows me to live within my means,” said Mary.
According to OCO planning coordinator, Kristin LaBarge, Mary’s is the ultimate success story.
“To go from homeless to being independent and willing to share their story is the greatest outcome we could achieve. It speaks to the character of the relationship that we build with our consumers. Katie Batchelor and many others are great examples of staff people that are dedicated to helping our homeless population. Part of helping people is to build relationships so that they have a trusting environment. The staff that work with the homeless population have a passion to help and to offer that support without being judgmental. Mary’s story is just one of the many positive outcomes we have achieved. While it often goes unnoticed, OCO’s homeless services do so much for so many people. We appreciate that Mary was willing to share her story,” said LaBarge.
For Mary, sharing her story was the least she could do to payback the kindness she received.
“When I was asked to do this I thought what else could I do for Katie and OCO? I can’t believe everything they’ve done. Katie put me in touch with other homeless services, helped me get on a waiting list to get into local income based housing, help find assistance with my utility bills, put me in touch with food pantries, helped me through the DSS process and much more. I am beyond grateful. To me Katie is the face of OCO, and if you had to pick someone, you couldn’t find a better person! She was always cheerful and made me feel that I was not alone. Katie was a beacon and added light to this dark period. Her moral support made me feel like a person who deserved better and her compassion was inspiring. She restored my dignity,” Mary said.
OCO is a member of COACH (County of Oswego Advocates Challenging Homelessness), Oswego County’s Continuum of Care Committee focusing on homelessness. The COACH committee 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.