Facing financial difficulties, Brewster Emergency Shelter Partnership (BESP) officials went in front of the Southeast town board last week to seek modest funding in hopes of keep its doors open next year.
The BESP provides homeless folks in the county with a safe, warm place to sleep in the winter months, but have fallen under financial duress recently, Brewster resident Judy Callahan told board members.
Callahan, who is on the board of directors, said the non-profit was started because a homeless man froze to death in the woods 11 years ago. Most of the effort is all-volunteer, with only one paid staff member who is an overnight manager. That person is paid $15 per hour for seven nights a week from December to March. The homeless people that are serviced can enter the shelter at 9 p.m. and must leave at 6 a.m. the next day.
Several churches in Putnam and part of upper Westchester assist in providing food and funds toward the shelter. The annual budget is about $30,000 and the BESP is seeking $3,000 from the town. There are four sleep sites–all local churches–that rotate.
The shelter partnership is facing a financial “crisis” going into the 2018-2019 year with only $2,000 currently on hand, which is far short of what the shelter usually has at this point, Callahan said.
Callahan said there is a perception that Brewster is the only area that has a homeless problem, but stressed it extends to every corner of the county.
“Probably every other town in this country,” Callahan said. “We’re helping these people and we’re helping keep someone else from dying from the cold.”
“Not all the money is coming through as it has in the past,” Callahan said.
Currently, Callahan has sent letters seeking financial assistance to several municipalities, including Patterson, Carmel, Kent and Putnam County. So far, the county is the only entity that has responded to the partnership, Callahan said, with County Executive MaryEllen Odell telling Callahan the county would consider expending funds when officials start the budget process in July.
Callahan said the BESP is cultivating a multi-faceted plan to secure the necessary funds after the 2018-2019 season is complete. While state funds are available, any money that could come from the state would result in more burdensome costs, Callahan said.
She noted that if the partnership is discontinued, the cost for the county to run a permanent shelter would be “staggering” because of the many regulations attached to that.
“We’re saving the county, the towns, everybody a lot of money by operating this way,” Callahan said.
In an interview, Callahan said one of the larger costs incurred this year was insurance, which the BESP didn’t have past years. Cots and other equipment also needed to be purchased this year, Callahan said. On top of that, money previously given from religious entities to the BESP has not come through like in previous years, she noted.
Southeast Supervisor Tony Hay said legally, it would be “unacceptable” to gift money to the partnership because government can’t expend tax dollars to a private entity, even though the shelter group is a non-profit. When he was on the county Legislature, he said Brewster resident Rick Stockburger came before lawmakers seeking funds for the shelter partnership around 2007, but the legislative counsel stated at the time that it was not legally tenable.
Town attorney Willis Stephens agreed with Hay’s legal assessment.
Councilwoman Lynne Eckardt was supportive of freeing up funding for the BESP, noting the town gives $30,000 to the humane society. (The town and humane society have a contract.)
“We have a responsibility to provide for,” Stephens said, with Eckardt cutting him off and saying “for dogs, but not for humans. That’s my point.”
Eckardt said part of government’s duty is to keep people safe. She also said providing some funding now could save more money in the long run.
Even if the town could legally grant money to the non-profit, Hay questioned how the town board would pick and choose which private entities receive tax dollars.
Tom Pease, who is the BESP treasurer, said that while the partnership might be a private entity, he stressed the organization still provides a much needed public service. He said law enforcement agencies and the county social services department work with the shelter to help homeless folks have a warm place to sleep during the winter.
Councilman John Lord said he would like to know what other towns and the county do when the BESP approaches them for funds.
“In a heartbeat I’d love to help you,” Councilwoman Liz Hudak said, but noted, “How could we do that without running afoul with the law.”
For readers interested in donating to the Brewster Emergency Shelter Partnership, checks can be sent to 12 Main Street, PMB 269, Brewster, NY, 10509 and written out to the official title above. For more information, call Gail Pease at 914-482- 4656.