MHA Homeless Shelter Successfully Opened
The Mental Health Association’s new emergency homeless shelter has been successfully opened.
According to Steven Cobb, MHA executive director, the shelter, located at the Gateway Center at 31 Water St., has been operating at either full capacity or almost full capacity over the past week. The emergency shelter’s maximum capacity is 20 guests and is currently the city’s only shelter for both male and female individuals.
Cobb explained that the emergency homeless shelter has been a unique experience because MHA has never had to organize a housing program before.
“We’ve never done housing,” he said. “We’ve never done a shelter, so I wasn’t sure this would work. We planned and we researched that, but you just don’t know until it actually starts happening.”
As the city’s first emergency homeless shelter for both men and women, Cobb said he was not sure at first how successful the shelter would be or how the combination would work; however, with moveable dividers in the shelter, he said the shelter is able to adjust to the “census count” of individuals each night to accommodate the individuals at the shelter.
“We haven’t had any problems with that at all,” he said. “At this point, we have quite a few more men than we do females. Everyone has been really respectful. The staff who are here have done really well working with the participants to instill a sense of respect, so that they know the rules, so it’s worked really well.”
‘NEED A SAFE PLACE TO STAY’
Sean Jones, MHA project manager, explained that the MHA shelter has been successful partially due to the relationship the organization already has with many of the homeless individuals in the community. He added that the guests have been “very appreciative” of the shelter and have felt safe and comfortable at the homeless shelter.
“A lot of the folks who we’re working with are folks who are participants of ours anyways, so we know them and recognize that the path they’re on to work on their recovery, you need to have a safe place to stay at night,” he said. “It’s pretty hard to think about recovery or changing substance use patterns or getting good with your mental health unless you have some place that’s safe for you to be where you can eat and take a shower and clean up.”
Jones said the “awareness” MHA has as an organization to mental health and substance abuse challenges has allowed the shelter to provide a level of support that many of the guests might not find at other places.
In addition to the support provided by MHA staff, Jones said it has been “neat” to see a level of “mutual respect” and support between the guests at the shelter.
According to Jones, the atmosphere at the shelter is “a little more laid back,” with both dinner and breakfast as “help yourself” meals. MHA staff members provide the guests with a variety of food that can be microwaved or warmed up in a toaster oven.
Cobb said that St. Susan Center has supplied the shelter with roughly 60% of the food needed for the guests. Between the provisions from St. Susan’s and donations from the community, Cobb said the money the MHA had budgeted for food has been able to go towards perishable foods such as milk, juice, yogurt and fruit.
“They’re getting a pretty good, well-rounded meal,” Cobb said.
‘ACTIVELY WORKING WITH A COACH’
MHA’s shelter also features a living room area that is equipped with couches, a television and movies for the guests to enjoy. Next to the living room area, the shelter has multiple tables for guests to use both to play games and eat meals.
“One person said it feels more like a home, and it does,” Jones said. “They just feel a little more at home.”
Like Joy Fellowship, MHA’s emergency homeless shelter opens at 5 p.m. during “Code Blue” nights when the weather is below 32 degrees.
On Sundays, the MHA homeless shelter allows guests to stay the whole day, since many of the individuals do not have any places to go during the day.
During other days of the week, the shelter encourages individuals to participate in MHA services and take steps toward their individual goals. Jones indicated that the goal is to work with each of the guests to get them in a position where they will not eventually need emergency sheltering.
“Everyone who’s staying, they’re actively working with a coach,” he said.
Asked about the relationship between the MHA homeless shelter and Joy Fellowship’s emergency homeless shelter, Jones said the relationship has been “really good.”
“It’s been working well with them,” he said. “It’s been working well with the police, with social services, like all the recruitment agencies haven’t had any issues.We’ve never done this before, so we weren’t sure, but the process has just gone smooth.”
At this point, Jones said most of the guests at the homeless shelter have been participants in MHA services; however, he said referrals from both the Department of Social Services and the Jamestown Police Department have increased recently due to the colder temperatures.
In addition to referrals from the police department and DSS, Jones said the emergency room has also referred people to MHA’s emergency homeless shelter as a result of the established collaboration between the two organizations in the past.
For guests who take advantage of MHA’s shelter more than once, Cobb said the shelter allows individuals a privilege that is not offered at every shelter.
“If the guests indicate to us that they want to continue staying here, we let them keep their items here so that they can come back,” he said. “Being homeless and carrying around all your belongings while you’re trying to do other things is a challenge, so we just felt that we could do that safely and manage that.”
The shelter utilizes safety measures for guests with medications or valuable items to limit any potential issues between the individual guests.
Each guest is provided with a cot and mattress, pillows, blankets and a tote to store personal belongings. Cobb explained that some of the guests have even been able to use multiple totes in a designated storage area at the shelter to store extra items that they do not need every day.
While both Cobb and Jones acknowledged that opening the MHA emergency homeless shelter has been “stressful” at times due the “level of responsibility” required for the operation and the “learning curve” throughout the experience, they explained that the process has been very successful so far.
“Everything has come together from staff to the board to the city to Chautauqua County to the faith-based organizations,” Cobb said. “We really had enormous support, and that’s made it go well.”