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Homelessness continues to surge in Southern Tier

Margaret Mellott, Cortland Standard
Posted 5/23/23

Little sun shone through trees and overgrown grass.

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Homelessness continues to surge in Southern Tier


CORTLAND — Little sun shone through trees and overgrown grass. Remnants of life scattered through the brush – crayons, water bottles, shoes, clothes, body wash – part of the story of the person who lived there, or maybe lives there still.

Farther down a path of stomped grass, under a tree branch and through a thicket of spiky burdock sat a tent. Hidden behind a wire fence, the tent had repurposed fabrics hanging just outside, offering shade on a sunny day.

Beyond that, more tents were hidden behind trees.

Homelessness in Cortland County and a neighboring five-county region has jumped 52% since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, federal data show – and that was already at a 15-year high. Nearly 500 people in Cortland, Broome, Otsego, Chenango, Delaware and Tioga counties lacked homes, and 67 lacked any kind of shelter at all last year, reports the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

And no one quite knows why.


“We are housing record numbers of families and single individuals in emergency housing, which means placement in a motel in our county,” Cortland County Social Services Commissioner Kristen Monroe said in an email. “One day this week the count was 15 families and 65 single adults. This is more than double numbers from previous years.”

“We are finding households are remaining in emergency housing much longer than they have in the past because they cannot afford to move on to permanent housing,” Monroe added. “It is still early in 2023, but we are on track to double our numbers in 2023 over 2022 at this point.”

As the homeless population rises in Cortland, one theory suggests the state eviction moratorium, enacted during the COVID-19 pandemic, may have played a role in the increase. However, data from Cornell University reports only a return to pre-pandemic eviction rates, not a spike.

Still, Tim Lockwood, director of Catholic Charities of Cortland County, said he believes the lifting of the eviction moratorium in January 2022 played a role.

“I think that certainly could have been a factor when that moratorium was in effect,” he said. “Literally, nobody was getting evicted.”

The pandemic exacerbated the workload for county services, Monroe said.

“There are a lack of resources in many public service systems,” Monroe said in an email Thursday. “The pandemic created an overall manpower crisis that has weakened the efficacy of every service delivery system.”

“Homelessness has become an epidemic since the pandemic,” Monroe added. “The homeless population has changed in that we no longer primarily serve employable or working poor individuals.”

Of the nearly 6,000 occupied rental units in Cortland County, there were 400 eviction filings in 2022, according to Cornell’s eviction filings dashboard. In 2019, the year before the pandemic began, there were more than 360 filings.

In 2022, there were 483 homeless people and 67 of them were unsheltered in a six-county region including Cortland, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That’s up from 318 and nine people in 2019, which itself was the greatest unemployment in 10 years, when 213 people were homeless, and 11 without shelter, in 2009.

Despite eviction numbers returning only to pre-pandemic levels, Lockwood said he saw a surge in people looking for assistance from Catholic Charities – a non-profit that offers care coordination, residential and housing services, peer support services and emergency assistance.

“I think landlords were finally like, ‘OK, now we can start evicting people for not paying their rent

or for other behavioral reasons,’” Lockwood said. “So, we saw an explosion of people come to us to get assistance for that purpose to stop evictions. We’re talking about thousands of dollars of back pay that people were trying to come up with to avoid being evicted. We don’t have that much funding to cover a lot of those situations.”

Monroe said it’s hard to point to a single reason for the increase.

“Based on our work trying to house those who are homeless, the situation is extremely complicated,” Monroe said. “The homeless epidemic is the result of dynamics involving many social, economic and political systems at all levels of federal, state and local governments.”

Cortland Free Library Director Jen Graney, who regularly helps homeless people at the library, had the same sentiment as Monroe: It could be anything.

“This is a place that’s open to everyone,” Graney said. “And because of that, we see all walks of life. It’s the one place where you can come and not have to spend a dime. You can just use Wifi or use the computers, read a book, charge your phone.”

One factor that complicates the issue, is the lack of affordable housing, said Cortland County Legislator Sandra Price (D-Virgil, Harford).

“The biggest challenge on the legislative level with addressing the needs of homeless people is lack of housing,” Price said. “There just isn’t enough.”

“We certainly see some who simply can no longer afford housing costs, but we are seeing a larger population of people who are unable to successfully function in society, specifically to maintain any housing provided, due to unsafe and destructive behaviors,” Monroe said.


Finding one solution is not possible, Lockwood said, adding that it will take multiple efforts and ongoing community conversations to approach the causes and effects of homelessness.

“We’re all talking about it, trying to figure out what are the solutions that could help and that’s going to be a combination of things,” Lockwood said. “Some short-term and some that are, by the nature of it, are going to be long-term solutions. You can’t just build housing overnight.”

“We have been working with all of our community partners and stakeholders to coordinate resources and efforts,” Monroe said. “These meetings include discussions on systemic service challenges as well as how we can best help individuals with challenging needs.”

The county Department of Social Services also will meet with state Office of Temporary and Disability representatives about future emergency and permanent housing opportunities.

Since her hire in 2020, Graney has implemented training to better understand homeless people and their needs. One resource she uses, Community Solutions, looks at ending homelessness in municipalities across the country.

“They talk about making homelessness as rare and brief as possible,” Graney said.

Its methodology, Built for Zero, looks at five key steps to solving homelessness:

  • Creating a shared definition of what the goal is.
  • Assembling an accountable, community-wide team.
  • Using real-time data, which accounts for everyone by name and need.
  • Understanding black and brown people are disproportionately affected by homelessness.
  • Targeted, data-driven housing investments.

Community Solutions has 14 communities that have achieved functional zero homelessness, “a milestone that indicates that fewer people are experiencing homelessness than are routinely exiting homelessness at any given time,” the non-profit’s website reads.

The closest community to Cortland County is Bergen County, New Jersey, which has reached functional zero for both veteran homelessness and chronic homelessness – people who have been homeless while enduring mental illness, substance use disorder or a physical disability.


Sometimes, Graney said, helping homeless people can be difficult, particularly when they don’t seek help.

“The county is always ready and willing to help the homeless if they choose to come to the Department of Social Services,” Price said. “Those that do, we help. Those that choose not to have that right and we don’t want to force their choices.”

“Their (some homeless people) behaviors often compromise their ability to stay in motels and congregate shelter settings,” Monroe said. “We offer assistance to those we believe have untreated mental health and substance use disorders. It is difficult to successfully connect people to services they need because they either do not want them or there is a lack of availability.”

Other issues come to bear, Monroe said:

  • Public assistance rental allowances have not been increased in more than 20 years.
  • Substance use disorder treatment is voluntary, wait lists are long, and inpatient services are out of county.
  • Mental health treatment is voluntary, also with long waits.
  • The state released many parolees without homes during the pandemic.

Graney said even little things can derail progress.

“I’ll see someone get a little bit further and I’m like, ‘Oh, they’re doing so well,’” Graney said. “Then, all of a sudden something happens and they’re back at square one and sometimes it’s just a missed appointment.”

“When I don’t see someone for a while, I just sort of hope that that means they’ve been successfully housed,” Graney added. “I never quite know that for sure.”


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