Homeless shelter opens in Amsterdam


Recorder News Staff

This week, a new homeless shelter opened in the city of Amsterdam, and seven individuals are already getting a feel for its purpose.

The shelter, operated by the Interfaith Partnership of the Homeless out of Albany, was approved late this summer to be set up at 218 East Main St.

With a little elbow grease and the help of a few workers from National Grid, the homeless shelter became operational on Monday and already is housing two individuals and a family of five.

"Evidently, there has been an increasing need starting a couple of years ago," said Montgomery County Social Services Commissioner Michael McMahon.

In 2010, McMahon said, they were getting many calls from people, specifically in the Amsterdam area, noting that individuals were sleeping in abandoned buildings, tents by the river, and vehicles.

"Suddenly, there was a need to address," he said.

A temporary shelter had been opened by Interfaith Partnership and a collaborative team mid-winter that year and 20 people utilized it, but the next year, even with a warm winter, the shelter saw nearly 80 people come through, McMahon said.

They recognized the need to have a permanent location, he explained, and this year Interfaith Partnership received a loan and purchased the East Main Street building.

Omar Serrano, the shelter's supervisor, explained that the key to the shelter is structure, and that begins with a referral from the Montgomery County Department of Social Services.

"We accept you here with their (DSS) conditions," Serrano said. "If they say a week, it's a week. If they say for a night, it's a night. If it's one night, you return to DSS and continue your case."

The structure of the shelter shows through the case management.

"It's much more than putting a roof over your shoulders because you are hands-on, working with a social worker on a daily, weekly basis," Serrano said. "You have guidelines that you have to meet."

"It puts structure in your life and it helps you."

But that's the philosophy of the Interfaith Partnership.

Many people are homeless due to outside factors, whether it be mental health, substance abuse, or difficulties with finding a job, said Ashley Fraser, Interfaith Partnership Supervisor of Shelter Services.

"Just kind of placing them in housing and hoping that they can retain it without having any of the support services set up, it can set people up for failure," she explained. "Having the case management component that our shelter has will help solidify and help them retain their housing if their not worried about all the external factors."

That is what Serrano is there for.

While there, Serrano will help those there to do job searches, build their resumes, find the most affordable housing possible, or connect with health treatment.

An Amsterdam native who was at one time an operating manager for a large shelter in New York City, Serrano was ready to take on the task after he moved back to the area and heard of the shelter's creation.

"I gained very good experience in the city," he said. "I moved back upstate and found an opportunity to continue my path with the homeless shelter services."

McMahon said the team "hit the jackpot" with Serrano.

"He's got a great skill-set and brings a lot of experience. He is a case manager," McMahon said. "The benefit for us here is when a client shows up at the homeless shelter, their needs will be met almost immediately."

Serrano and members of this Social Services team will work to identify what happened to create the individual's situation and what they need to get back on their feet.

"The tools that you learn when you're in ... a homeless shelter, those are tools that you can take with you for the rest of your life," Serrano said.

"Basically, I just feel that this is something that Montgomery County needs."

The shelter will run as it is from November to April and then after that will turn into transitional housing, where families who need some time to come up with money in order to get their own apartment can stay in a supported location for a few months, Serrano explained.

Aside from the bottom floor housing the 8-person shelter turned transitional housing, the top two floors of the building will house two apartments that will open up near December as two affordable housing units.

Serrano will also be available to these individuals for case management, but mostly he will just be there for support, Fraser said.

The apartments will also be the source of revenue that the shelter will need to stay a permanent shelter in the city.

"That takes energy resources to have this structure become a permanent fixture so we can develop it and continue to enhance our services," McMahon said.

"I wish homelessness was not an issue we have to deal with. Unfortunately, we do. And I think we've done fantastic work."