PLATTSBURGH — Poverty looks very different now, United Way of the Adirondack Region Inc. CEO John Bernardi said.
“What we’re seeing is that working households are struggling to make ends meet ... despite their efforts to work two and three jobs per household.”
Bernardi and representatives from several other local social services providers participated in a roundtable on poverty and the opioid crisis hosted by State Attorney General Letitia “Tish” James in SUNY Plattsburgh’s Alumni Conference Room Wednesday.
“As attorney general, I’m here to serve and not be served and to address the needs that all of you have been discussing,” James said as she opened the floor.
Bernardi explained that better than half of households in the region live below the ALICE — Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed — threshold, the minimum income necessary to live independently without services.
On the one hand, the federal poverty limits come to around $11,000 for an individual and $23,000 for a family of four, he said.
However, the ALICE threshold in this region is about $23,000 for an individual and $60,000 for a family of four.
“What we’ve found is, between that gap, there are tens of thousands of families in our region living right on the edge of that financial cliff.”
“Something as inconvenient as a flat tire, or a leaky roof or a broken furnace, things that we all take for granted as an inconvenience or a nuisance, can create a life-changing chain of events that lead to homelessness, unemployment, increased substance abuse and any number of related issues.”
Michael Carpenter — owner of MHAB Enterprises LLC and president/CEO of The Northeast Group — said part of the issue is that employees on benefits could lose them with raises of 25 or 50 cents per hour.
“We have employees that have actually come in and said, ‘Hey, can you take back the raise that you gave me because it doesn’t offset the cost for oil in the winter so I can’t keep my house.’”
The top three issues that these families face are transportation, child care and housing, Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay, said.
He said it was good that state legislation permitting ride-share programs, like Uber or Lyft, went through, but the programs have not really taken off in the area outside of the city of Plattsburgh.
That has to do with lower quality of cellular service and the fact that drivers need a level of demand to bring in a profit.
Essex County Mental Health and Community Services Director Terri Morse said Essex County only has 38,000 residents with many towns separated by 12 or 15 miles.
She added that it would take a lot of money to provide transportation that is not going to be recovered, or the county would have to buy people cars.
“But I’m not sure a ride-sharing solution would work in Essex County because it’s too thinly populated and we don’t have a Plattsburgh.”
Bernardi also spoke about the urgent need for foster care in the region, an issue largely related to poverty and substance use disorder.
He cited one statistic which says that Franklin County, with a population of about 50,000 people, has the same number of children in foster care as Suffolk County, which has 1.2 million.
Bernardi praised the three counties’ departments of social services, but said they are overwhelmed with the need for resources.
City of Plattsburgh Mayor Colin Read brought up the New York State Land Bank Program in response to James’s question about whether the area had zombie homes.
According to the state’s website, land banks “are not-for-profit corporations created to take control of, and redevelop, vacant or abandoned properties to better serve the public interest.”
But State Sen. Betty Little (R-Queensbury) pointed out the issue that there can only be one land bank per county, and multiple municipalities in Clinton County are interested in setting one up.
James said that seems like an issue the legislature could correct, allowing for the county and cities of a certain size to have land banks.
James’s office is party to a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma — the manufacturer of OxyContin — and its owners, members of the Sackler family.
She considers the $3 billion they have offered as part of a settlement in the suit — which involves almost two dozen states and many municipal governments — totally inadequate and a slap in the face, which is why her office is continuing negotiations.
When James asked where resources that come from this suit should go, Champlain Valley Family Center for Drug Treatment and Youth Services Inc. CEO Connie Wille said prevention services both within the community and in local school districts have always been underfunded.
She has also seen issues with transporting people to get the treatment they need, and added that the newly opened All Ways to Recovery Community Center, located next door to MHAB, is at risk of disappearing since the funding secured for it is only good for 18 months.
Carpenter said the area does not have a detoxification facility where people can go for just a few days to get the drugs out of their systems.
He would like to see more funds available for those in treatment to receive resources for a longer period of time until they are engaged in recovery.
Plattsburgh Town Supervisor Michael Cashman said if James could find some assistance for local coalitions seeking to combat substance abuse, that would send a message that her office is going to help the agencies directly.
Bernardi added that those coalitions — Substance Abuse Prevention and Recovery of Clinton County (SPARCC), Essex County Heroin and Opioid Coaltion (ECHO) and the Franklin County Prevention Task Force — are very active.
“We do need help from the state, but I’d also like you to walk away from this meeting, I hope you will, understanding that we’re also really committed, very smart and doing some really creative things to address the challenges that we have in this region.”
Even though James is from New York City, she recognizes that urban and rural areas face similar issues.
“Although I’m the attorney general, I’m really just someone who was once poor, was once on public assistance. I have some family members who were addicted to drugs, and so I understand the struggle and I understand the pain that a lot of the families, a lot of the residents are experiencing.”