“Without you, we couldn’t do this.”
These were Valencia Shelton-Alston’s opening words at Taco Tuesday, the annual fellowship event for volunteers in the David B. Skinner Shelter.
Alston is the respite coordinator at the Olivieri Drop-In Center, which provides case management services to men and women experiencing homelessness, and manages the shelter populations at 17 sites (including Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church) in Manhattan and Queens. Together these shelters accommodate up to 88 guests on any given night.
FAPC’s shelter hosts all know the name “Valencia” as the contact point at Olivieri when there are questions about a guest or if an emergency arises. But until Tuesday, most of the hosts had never met her in person. Nor had many had the opportunity to hear first-hand how Olivieri works to assist our guests in securing transitional or permanent housing.
“Let me give you a ‘day in the life,’” she said. “Our clients come to us from one of our three outreach teams. The first thing we do is collect their personal information — name, social security number and date of birth — and check for them in CARES, our database. If they have ever been in the New York City shelter system, CARES will have it.”
New clients have a case management meeting within the first 24 hours of arrival. Case workers determine eligibility for a shelter bed—is the client willing to receive services (not all of them are), willing to accept shelter (some prefer the parks, especially in warmer weather) and willing to abide by the shelter’s rules? Clients then receive a medical and psychiatric evaluation, and a tuberculosis clearance, before being assigned a bed.
At this point, the shelter becomes a vital part of a months-long journey from homelessness to housing. It’s a transition often fraught with delays, impediments and frustrations on both sides.
“What you all are doing is invaluable,” Alston said. “Sometimes our guys can be difficult. I know that.”
Alston said the transition to housing ideally takes three to nine months—when all goes smoothly. But clients must be able to manage their work schedules, show up on time for case management meetings, and provide the necessary documentation the process requires. “Something as simple as a birth certificate can take forever,” she said.
Meanwhile, the shelter provides refuge—a safe place to rest, to vent frustrations, to gather strength for another day.
Making the move into permanent houing is most challenging for elderly clients and clients with physical or mental health issues. But those in “the general population”—individuals who are healthy, employed and ready for a home—face yet another roadblock. “New York City doesn’t have affordable housing,” Alston said bluntly. “That’s why some clients can stay for years is what is supposed to be transitional housing, where they continue to receive services.”
Alston said that Olivieri had moved 153 men and women into housing in the last year, 77 of them into permanent housing. Yet another 62,000 still wait their turn in the city’s vast shelter system.
“What gives you hope?” Associate Pastor Kate Dunn asked as Alston concluded her remarks.
“There are so many successes I see,” Alston replied. “Our housing specialists are the best in the city. I am amazed at the work our team does.”
Alston has been at her job for 11 years and has not tired of it. “I love listening to people. I’ve met clients who are writers, lawyers… I love hearing their stories. And I love seeing what we can do to help them.”