In recent months, there has been much controversy around accessing human services for the poor and needy. Suffolk County officials would like to say that the difficulty centers on the increase in need for those services. That is only part of the story. Getting assistance in Suffolk County is a very complicated formula. Unlike Nassau County, the people of Suffolk have added social issues to contend with.
Increased need for human services is an understatement. Documented need that appears in county and state reports is inaccurate and incomplete at best. There are countless people, old and young alike, who attempt to apply for human services and never reach the application process for a whole host of reasons.
Suffolk County Department of Social Services makes a valiant effort to address the needs of the poor, the working poor and the homeless population. However, you can only do so much with limited personnel who are already overburdened, overworked and have less than adequate resources.
The various county health centers are not adequately staffed to accommodate the people seeking assistance each day. In one local center, they have established a time window for receiving applications for services. After 2:00pm, you are not admitted into the center. Oftentimes, people who arrive at the center in the early morning will sit all day before being assisted.
One of the legitimate expectations that the Department of Social Services has is having legitimate personal identification. More often than not, the poorest of the poor, especially the young, do not have adequate identification. Before they can apply for emergency services, they must obtain a valid form of identification. The most expedient way is to obtain a social security card or apply for one.
That might sound very simple, but if you're homeless and without transportation, living in Suffolk County makes it very complicated. You have to get to the Social Security Office in Patchogue and wait on line. If you are limited, meaning if you have a problem reading, you will need special assistance. That makes the process even longer. The real problem is transportation. If you are temporarily staying on the North Shore, how do you get to the South Shore within a reasonable time frame and obtain the services so you can return to your Health Center to make application for emergency services?
The only transportation available to the poor is the bus. Our bus service is limited at best. It is not twenty four hours a day. It does not run at night. Traveling by car, you could go from point A to point B in half an hour, but by bus it could take two hours.
If you need emergency Medicaid, the process is even more complicated. The paperwork is more detailed and the documentation is more extensive. You may make an application for eligibility, but you have one week to gather all the documentation. If your paperwork is in order, it takes four to six weeks to process and then you are issued a Medicaid card.
Unfortunately, many treatment centers, both residential and outpatient, will not accept you if you do not have a valid Medicaid card. What is even more troubling is that if a homeless person has been hospitalized and doesn't have health insurance or Medicaid, if he or she needs prescriptions filled because of serious health problems, it is almost impossible to guarantee that he or she will have the necessary prescriptions to address his or her serious medical condition.
The Smithtown Center is where those without insurance go to get a voucher for their medical prescriptions. The experience one shelter frequently has on an on-going basis is frustration. The client must arrive at the Smithtown Center by 7:00am. Sometimes there are as many as thirty people already in line. With no rhyme or reason, oftentimes only ten out of thirty people are selected to be screened. There are times when a person with a serious heart condition has waited hours. When he is finally seen, he is denied the prescription voucher based on some bogus claim of noncompliance. The concern here is that the person's life could be in jeopardy without the appropriate medicine. Based on research, this is not an exception, but rather a normative practice. If this is correct, it is unconscionable!
We talk about the homeless people in Suffolk County, but many people are not aware of their profile. The growing number of homeless in our county, based on county statistics, suffer from serious mental health and addiction issues. In addition to those who are wrestling with mental health issues and addictions, we have a growing number of working poor who are struggling to find housing and adequate employment to support their families. They are also without any kind of health insurance and are usually not eligible for Medicaid.
There are a growing number of young people between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one, who are living on our streets. County statistics only tell part of the story. They gather their statistics from county and state funded agencies that address population. However, there are other agencies that are not state and county funded that work with homeless youth. Their numbers are escalating exponentially.
We have inadequate housing and human services for the adult poor. We have even less for those between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one. Remember, we live in a state that allows a sixteen year old to sign out of high school, live outside his or her home and sue his or her family for support. There is nothing a parent can do to block a teenage son or daughter from leaving home at sixteen.
The paradox is that if your sixteen year old is out of control and creating havoc in your home, staying out all night, drinking and drugging, you have little power to force that young person into treatment. If a young person leaves home on his or her own and causes an accident or hurts someone, as the parent, you are legally responsible for that young person, even though he or she is living on his or her own.
Presently, there is one county funded program for teenage runaways. It has eight beds and one can stay a maximum of thirty days. What happens if it's not appropriate for the young person to go home? What if that young person needs long term treatment for addictions or mental health issues? Where does he or she turn? Resources in this regard are almost nonexistent.
What happens to the homeless teenager? Most are being placed in homeless shelters for adults, which are never healthy places for teenagers to stay. Remember, the shelter is usually an overnight accommodation, so where does a seventeen year old who cannot go home or maybe doesn't have a home to go to because his parents are deceased or in jail, get placed?
The county is between a rock and a hard place. They can barely accommodate adults and families who are homeless. Long-term housing is at a premium. The placements for single adults are oftentimes grossly inadequate, poorly maintained, lacking in supervision and even, at times, not safe. Unfortunately, these are the environments that a growing number of our teenagers are being forced to deal with because we have nothing of substance to offer them.
It is in these environments that these young people are exposed to out of control drug use and alcohol abuse. If they are struggling with these issues, it is impossible to maintain a position of abstinence and recovery.
We have an antiquated plan for assisting our homeless adults and young people, as well as those who suffer from mental illness and addictions. Long waits for services are only the tip of the iceberg. Our services for people in need are grossly inadequate. Most of us are unaware of this because remember, the poor and the needy are the voiceless among us, with no representation and with no fixed address.