THE NEW NORTH MAIN AVE. HOUSING (KATE BLAIN PHOTO)
THE NEW NORTH MAIN AVE. HOUSING (KATE BLAIN PHOTO)
Five years ago, after nearly three decades of loyal tenancy at an Albany apartment building, Thomas Eckert was accused of spreading bedbugs and asked to leave.

He stayed with a friend for a few weeks, but ended up living on the streets. He said he ate out of garbage cans for a month - until he heard about Catholic Charities' DePaul Residence, one of the diocesan agency's many housing programs for low-income and homeless individuals.

Today, the 72-year-old can listen to his favorite Christian songs on the radio in his cozy, furnished room at DePaul.

"When I came here, I had a green hat, a suit jacket and pants," said Mr. Eckert, who was on disability for decades due to physical issues and schizophrenia before qualifying for retirement income. "I couldn't afford to pay $1,000 for a studio [apartment. Catholic Charities] got me clothes and this place. I had meals and everything and they treated me royally."

Helping hundreds
At any given time, the Catholic Charities Housing Office (CCHO) is assisting up to 300 people to find housing at 25 family apartments in Albany, two 19-bed homeless shelters and six single-room-occupancy (SRO) buildings in Albany, Rensselaer and Otsego Counties. All of the housing is considered permanent; the average length of stay is 49 months, but some residents live out their senior years there.

Since the country's 2008 economic recession, CCHO has seen more first-time homeless clients; the agency still has a waiting list for its facilities. Recent state and federal budget cuts will force Catholic Charities to seek new funding sources, as the affordable housing crisis doesn't appear to be ending.

Thomas Coates, director of operations for CCHO, pointed out that a person making minimum wage takes home about $1,000 a month. The fair market rent for an efficiency apartment in the Albany-Schenectady-Troy area is about $650, and the tenant is still responsible for utilities, food, transportation and child care.

What is poverty?

"Poverty isn't a choice that people make," Mr. Coates said. "You can't pull people up by the bootstraps if they don't have shoes.

"Being poor isn't being stupid or lazy or crazy or drunk," he continued. "Poverty is being poor, and you may drink just to relieve your misery."

People who have been homeless have unique skills, but often struggle with transferring them to normal life, CCHO staff said. Catholic Charities case managers act as liaisons between residents of the housing sites and their employers and assist with things like child care, transportation, budgeting and entitlement assistance.

"It's very complicated to be poor and to try to get your life together and to want to move forward," said Deborah Damm O'Brien, executive director of the CCHO and several of its programs.

She offered the example of a single mom being laid off after missing work for car trouble or to care for a sick child: "Most of the people we're working with are trying to survive with what's been given to them."

Up to 55 percent of CCHO clients have mental health issues; up to 75 percent struggle with substance abuse. The Catholic Charities facilities use a "housing first" philosophy that assumes rehabilitative work will follow securing a place to stay.

Places to stay
"Housing is one of the basic needs people have," Mrs. O'Brien said. "What would it be like for you to sit there and think at the end of the day, there's no place to go?

"We're all about helping people have stable lives and be in their community" and keep their dignity, she continued, noting that each client is "a child of God just like I am."

CCHO aims to "keep doing what it is we do, because we're really good at it," she said. The agency wants to expand from running permanent housing in three counties of the Diocese to all 14. It employs 60 staff members, including 35 current or former tenants.

Mr. Eckert of the DePaul Residence is content living out his retirement in Catholic Charities housing. He describes his past as "hard", but says he now has "a wonderful life.

"I just take my medicine," he continued. "It works, and God takes care of the rest. I play it day by day."