By: Daniel Flatley, Times Staff Writer | Published: Sunday, January 11, 2015 at 12:30 AM
|JUSTIN SORENSEN / WATERTOWN DAILY TIMES
Cheryl A. Stevens with Neighbors of Watertown is organizing a study of homelessness in Jefferson County.
WATERTOWN — Cheryl A. Stevens was once homeless. Now, she is working to end homelessness.
Mrs. Stevens, a family case manager at Neighbors of Watertown Inc., is chairwoman of a project that seeks to interview homeless people living in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties to determine the extent of the area’s homeless population.
“Homelessness has tentacles,” Mrs. Stevens said. “It reaches out and touches everybody.”
The project, called a “point-in-time survey,” is required annually by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In recent years, the survey has been completed by collecting information from social services agencies in the area.
This year, the Points North Housing Coalition, which coordinates the study, is trying something different.
The coalition, which is composed of social services agencies, nonprofit organizations and churches, is asking the homeless to speak with volunteers stationed at convenience stores, gas stations, restaurants, laundromats and other places where they can seek shelter from the harsh north country weather.
Homeless people are not required to give their names. By providing some basic information, the region’s homeless population will be helping the coalition to determine how services are allocated.
Student interns from Jefferson Community College and Cayuga Community College will provide some of the points of contact, but Mrs. Stevens is looking for additional volunteers to help collect information.
“This is not like New York City,” Mrs. Stevens said. “These people stay in cars, they stay with people they’ve met, they provide sex so they can have a place to stay.”
According to Mrs. Stevens, homeless people in rural areas will select public places to take refuge from the elements, often cycling from place to place to avoid suspicion — a few hours in a restaurant, a few hours in a store, a few hours in a laundromat.
At night, they’ll seek shelter in a vehicle or in a 24-hour establishment.
“If you have enough money for a cup of coffee, you can stay somewhere for a couple of hours and no one will be the wiser,” Mrs. Stevens said.
And with no organized shelters in the area, the north country’s brutal winters put the area’s homeless at even greater risk, according to Mrs. Stevens.
Last year, the point-in-time survey revealed there were 914 sheltered and unsheltered homeless people in the three north country counties, including 162 who were chronically homeless, 358 who received mental health services, 162 who received substance abuse services, 43 who were veterans of the armed forces, 33 who were victims of domestic violence and one who had been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS.
Mrs. Stevens said that many years ago, after her husband was injured in a car accident, she and her family were homeless for a time.
That’s the reason she’s so passionate about the survey.
“No one deserves to be homeless,” she said.