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Working Within A Vacuum Of Indifference

In recent weeks the local media has talked about the problems of homelessness, out of control teenagers and dwindling support resources for people in need. What most people reading this column don't realize is that ...

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In recent weeks the local media has talked about the problems of homelessness, out of control teenagers and dwindling support resources for people in need. What most people reading this column don't realize is that the media still sugarcoats the real truth about how things are in Suffolk County.

Any person with special needs, young and old alike, with limited material resources is potentially in serious trouble if one is looking for support or any kind of human service assistance.

During the past twenty-five years, so many not-for-profit agencies have fallen by the wayside. Many well-intentioned agencies structured their budgets around government money. In the mid 80's, government funding flowed like water. Today it is down to a trickle, if you are lucky.

Thus, the range of human services that were once in place to reach out to the poor and marginal among us is no more. Clearly the problems of homelessness and other social needs have not decreased. To the contrary, they have escalated at an alarming rate. Too many people with very limited finances have nowhere to turn.

The other part of this tragic story that goes untold is that the limited governmental resources in place to help are already overtaxed, understaffed and on the verge of burnout are not being renewed or revitalized.

In many government entities like Probation, Social Services and Child Protective Services, as workers retire and/or resign, few are being replaced. Programs that on paper could be most effective are being set up for failure because of inadequate staffing. The many exceptional workers in each of these entities are being expected to carry unbearable caseloads and are being burnt out in the process.

Waiting lists for many vital services are excessively long. Parents with out of control children, who are clearly reckless and potentially dangerous, are not being serviced in a timely manner. In some cases, parents are being discouraged from filing PINS petitions even though their child has been truant for weeks, violent and oppositionally defiant.

Many of our defiant teenagers are laughing at our Family Court system and our Probation Department because the follow through and accountability on everyone's part, at best, is weak and inconsistent. The professionals are not the problem. You cannot take blood from a stone. You cannot expect shackled professionals to work miracles in a vacuum of indifference within a system that sets people up for failure.

Recent newspaper articles spoke about the poverty of resources for homeless single adults. The resources that are available are scandalously inadequate. They are more often than not filthy dirty, unsafe and havens for violence, drugs and other criminal behaviors.

The absentee landlords that are getting rich on your tax dollars are not honoring their letters of agreement with Suffolk County. People who are placed there are frightened and overwhelmed. They are not safe. Many of the adults who are placed in room and board settings are ex-Viet Nam vets battling varying degrees of mental illness and addiction. They need much more than a broken bed with soiled linens and a toilet that doesn't work. They need case management services to assist them with basic living and survival skills.

Again it is another case of setting wounded people up for failure. No wonder government in Suffolk County is on the verge of bankruptcy.

The invisible population that no one speaks about, who are truly the voiceless and faceless among us are sixteen to twenty-one year olds. They are running away and living in our streets in epidemic numbers.

These statistics fall between the cracks because there are almost no resources that formally deal with homeless youth.

The few agencies that do deal with homeless youth do not have government contracts. When statistics are compiled, their numbers are often not sought after.

If the truth be told, the picture isn't pretty. If teenagers over sixteen run away and need emergency services, the options for them are very limited.

It is unconscionable to think of a sixteen year old boy staying in a men's shelter, sleeping on a cot next to a sixty year old mentally ill street person; or to place this "child" in a room and board situation where he fears for his life, sleeping on a soiled mattress without sheets, with his sneakers under an uncovered pillow so they won't get stolen in the middle of the night.

When the system is confronted, there is often silence or a response that says, "this is the best we have."

The stories of brutality are endless. The maze you face if you wish to file a complaint, that most times goes no place, is inhumane.

Why? Homeless teenagers and homeless adults have no fixed addresses. They are the voiceless and faceless among us. They are at the bottom of the political agenda because they don't vote, so they cannot threaten a political leader or party. We make them invisible until something tragic occurs. Then maybe for a moment a flicker of compassion erupts to be quickly buried under other more important issues.

Suffolk County's approach to homelessness and people in need is a disaster. We need to bring all the advocates and not-for-profit agencies to the table, put aside our political agendas and honestly look at the complexity of the problem and the tremendous resources we already have, but poorly use. We must have the courage to design a plan that empowers people to self-reliance rather than set them up for failure.

It is time for Suffolk County government to stop abusing the homeless and using them as a political football.