The Examiner

County to Close Valhalla Homeless Shelter Next Week

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Westchester County legislators expressed frustration and concern this week over the Department of Social Services’ (DSS) abrupt decision to shut down a Valhalla homeless shelter.

DSS announced its decision at Monday’s Board of Legislators Community Services Committee meeting to close the county-owned Valhalla Residence Shelter on Hammond Road on Dec. 31 . The closure will save Westchester about $500,000, however, legislators questioned why the issue was not raised during budget proceedings in November.

“If this was the intent, I really don’t understand why, just a month ago when we were here discussing [the DSS] budget going forward for 2015, that none of this was brought up,” said Legislator Alfreda Williams (D-Greenburgh).

Legislators also haven’t received a quarterly report from DSS since April, she added.

DSS Commissioner Kevin McGuire and Deputy Commissioner Phillippe Gille said the facility is being closed because its services are redundant. The Grasslands homeless shelter is just a quarter-mile away and the building that houses the Valhalla Residence Shelter, which accommodates up to 18 people, could be used for other purposes.

Gille explained that five residents have enough income to be able to move into permanent single-resident homes, one will move in with relatives and another was placed in an adult home. The remaining 11 residents will be relocated to temporary housing and shelters throughout the county.

“It seems like…Scrooge-like behavior to dispossess people or ask people to move before Christmas”, Williams said.

McGuire and Gille said the facility’s closure is justified because the number of homeless people who utilize DSS shelters has been reduced over the past year. They said the remaining facilities will be able to absorb the influx of residents because only 80 percent of the beds at all county-owned shelters were filled as of Dec. 19. That statistic does not include the Valhalla Residence Shelter.

“We’re fairly comfortable, absent a catastrophe of some kind, that we’ll be able to make it through the year with this capacity,” Gille said.

The Valhalla Residence Shelter opened more than 20 years ago to help homeless people who were suffering from HIV/AIDS. As treatments and attitudes toward the disease changed, the shelter evolved into a place for the medically frail.

According to Gille, 40 percent of people who use the shelter receive no medical care. Those who do need medical assistance are placed in a care facility, such as a nursing home, if their condition is serious enough or they receive treatment off-site through medical providers. Gille explained that DSS did its best to relocate residents so their medical services would continue uninterrupted.

Catherine Marsh, who opened Valhalla Residence Shelter, said she was concerned about what will happen to Westchester’s homeless who suffer from mental, physical and psychiatric disorders.

Following Monday’s two-hour meeting, Marsh said she would like to have seen a discussion about how residents who are being relocated were recently assessed to determine whether their medical issues warrant placement in a different facility. Marsh said she recently met with a shelter director who mentioned that he was unprepared to receive a resident who recently had an amputation. She feared some shelters would be unable to accept medically frail residents.

Legislator Catherine Borgia (D-Ossining) voiced skepticism whether the DSS would be able to handle the homeless population if it closes the shelter, noting that she still sees people on the streets at night. Gille countered that the DSS can only help those who arrive at the shelter for help. He explained that many homeless people will not come forward because they don’t comply with DSS requirements, such as attending rehab or therapy or finding employment.

Last winter, shelters often reached capacity because of the harsh weather. Marsh said she is concerned that the shelter’s closure will force people to remain on the streets this winter.

“There was reference to the cold weather last year and the bump in the numbers and it’s winter again,” Marsh said.

McGuire and Gille explained that the reduction in the number of homeless is due to more intensive case review. They spoke of a focus on eviction prevention and permanent housing solutions while developing individual living plans to avert a return to the shelter once someone is placed in a permanent home.

“I have to say that that approach seems to have been a success because we’ve been able to reduce the number of people that are in our system significantly in the past year,” McGuire said.

Although legislators applauded the prevention approach, they urged that more work be done to treat the underlying causes of homelessness, including mental illness and substance abuse. Williams said there needs to be greater communication and cooperation between government and nonprofit agencies and community organizations.

“It seems to me that, going forward, we need to emphasize the fact that in order to provide the assistance that we need to provide to help people to be able to stand on their own feet and be employed and be in stable family situations, there needs to be a coming together of all of these agencies to work in a better relationship with one another,” Williams said.

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