FULTON — Fourth-quarter data is not yet in, but Diane Cooper-Currier, the head of Oswego County Opportunities, is seeing a troubling trend in the number of individuals experiencing or at risk of homelessness.

Cooper-Currier, the executive director of Oswego County Opportunities (OCO), said roughly 1,300 homeless or housing vulnerable people sought the organization’s assistance in the first nine months of 2019. Concrete data for 2019 is not yet available to definitely show an increase, but Cooper-Currier said anecdotally it appears there are more people seeking services than in years past.

“The 1,300 people are either homeless or housing vulnerable, meaning they have an eviction notice in hand, a utility shut off or they could be triple, quadrupled or doubled up in a place that really doesn’t have enough space for them to be living,” Cooper-Currier told The Palladium-Times.

Rising instances of homelessness has been on local leaders’ radar for several years, with the city of Oswego working with OCO in late 2018 on a canvassing program to identify and assist individuals experiencing homelessness in the city.

Mayor Billy Barlow at the time said an uptick in the number of homeless individuals in recent years prompted the street canvassing program. Barlow said as the city was seeking to improve public spaces the sight of homeless individuals inhabiting such spaces does not send the right message to visitors, residents and children about the Oswego community.

Barlow called the program “one part of a bigger picture” in the officials’ efforts to improve the community.

The increase in people experiencing homelessness and how OCO assists them will be a topic of conversation presented by OCO’s Director of Behavior Health Services Beth Thompson at the First Universalist Society of Central Square at 1 p.m. Jan. 19. A free potluck will precede the program at 11:30 a.m., with donation being accepted to support OCO’s homeless services.

Once someone contacts OCO Homeless Services via phone (315-342-7618) or via text (315-297-9795), the person is put into a database that prioritizes the most vulnerable for various programs.

“We would start with them typically in our crisis services, our homeless intervention services,” Cooper-Currier said. “While we don’t have a shelter, we would help them find immediate shelter and they would typically also be referred to the Department of Social Services (DSS) as a homeless individual. DSS can then place them immediately in some type of temporary housing.”

While OCO has some shelter beds, DSS has contracts with hotels and motels in the area to house people on a temporary basis until they permanent housing is secured.

“Then we step in and work with them to find permanent housing, and we can provide financial support to them so they can get housed quickly, like a security deposit or we can help them with rent for a short period of time,” Cooper-Currier said. “We can also address other needs they may have, like health care.”

OCO can help with other immediate needs as well, such as with clothing or food. The organization has a small pantry to help feed those in need.

“We have a small pantry where we can provide non-perishable food t people,” Cooper-Currier said. “Those donations, as well as cash, are always welcome.”

For Cooper-Currier, helping the homeless or housing vulnerable is only a part of the job for OCO.

OCO also works to link individuals with other services, including those dealing with mental health or substance abuse problems or survivors of domestic abuse.

“There’s a number of different needs they have that tend to go untreated because of their homeless status,” Thompson said. “Once they get stabilized in housing, the services provided by staff help get them stabilized so they don’t return to homelessness.”

There are other options, such as transitional-permanent housing and permanent housing OCO can offer.

“People can move into a permanent apartment with us, where we might be able to — depending on their financial situation — support them for a period of time until they can reach a point where they are earning enough to pay for their own living expenses,” Cooper-Currier said. “In the meantime, we also provide some of the social services … so that whatever might be a barrier and puts their housing at risk we can dissipate or eliminate.”

Cooper-Currier said partnerships between government, nonprofits, business and the faith community are essential to empower individuals and help change their lives.

“We need everybody to help us do what we do, and what we do is … focus on crisis intervention services and what we would call more development services, like helping people develop their abilities to live self-sufficiently,” she said. “Educational support for both children and adults to help them increase their educational outcomes, health and nutrition, and transportation, as well as housing services for special needs populations. It’s for homeless, but also the chemically addicted, the mentally ill, the developmentally disabled and victims of domestic violence.”

OCO’s programs serve people of all ages, including runaway and homeless youth. The agency staffs a 24-hour crisis hotline at 315-342-1600, 315-342-7618 or 1-877-342-618.

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