He's doing God's work. Greg Blass, the Suffolk County Commissioner of Social Services, believes his job advocating for the homeless is "public service in its purest form." He and a staff he describes as "professional, dedicated, compassionate and committed to clients and their plight," are "blessed with usefulness."
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But don't get him wrong. Don't think he's a softy. During a visit to The Independent to discuss his department's response to the homeless crisis in Suffolk last Thursday, Blass had plenty of pert words for detractors and obstructionist politicians who kowtow to those who say about homeless shelters "Not In My Back Yard."
"I, and everyone in the department is extremely disappointed in those in a public service position who have been resoundingly silent in the face of this appalling bias that's been expressed by some," Blass said. Homeless shelters, like the one Suffolk is establishing in Hampton Bays have been described as "warehouses for criminals and drug dealers" that are sheltered to "pursue a hedonistic lifestyle," the commissioner reported.
That stereotype couldn't be farther from the truth. Blass explained that clients who stay in the county's 52 shelters, plus the dozen or so motels used as shelters must sign a set of rules for behavior, adhere to curfews and meet with caseworkers who are on site daily carrying out the mission of the department – steering clients towards self sustainability. Blass is proud of the county's record of transitioning between 30 and 40 families out of homelessness every month. Still, it's a struggle to serve the average of 530 families and 200 plus individuals seeking aid each week.
Endeavoring to dispel the picture of homeless "Bowery bums," Blass reported his department's clients are predominantly single mothers with small children, including victims of domestic violence who must be moved secretly for their own safety. His clients, said the commissioner, are very motivated and eager to find their own places. One family has already transitioned out of the new Hampton Bays shelter. "These are not people who require neighbors to keep their doors locked," he said.
They're people who have to undergo a grueling screening process in order to be eligible for the assistance. Long before the popular TV program "Undercover Boss" premiered, Blass surveilled county centers incognito and saw for himself the heartbreak clients – and staff -- endure. Applying for assistance is an intimidating process. Sitting in the lobbies observing, Blass saw the dedication of his staff, but also saw the county's four centers are "truly overwhelmed with lines and the volume of people and it's getting worse." With the economic downturn, demand for services is much higher than it's ever been before.
Blass saw people from every conceivable family, education and employment background with nowhere else to turn. Sitting in those lobbies, he worried that some people, faced with the need to provide the extensive documentation the state requires, would leave and never return.
It's widely believed social programs are exploited by undocumented immigrants looking to their new country for a free ride. There is "not one" undocumented immigrant in the county's homeless shelter system, Blass made clear. "An undocumented individual is ineligible for any kind of program or service," the commissioner said. County employees will refer them to other non-profit charitable organizations, however. "You're talking about human beings," he said. "We try to get them help."
Speaking to another inaccurate image, Blass refuted the view of shelters as ugly barracks-type settings rife with drugs, crime and alcohol. "We have a Zero Tolerance policy," he said. Individuals who violate the rules relating to drugs or alcohol are asked to leave. Politicians encourage the ugly armory image, even when "they know it's untrue," Blass said. Rooms that are used to house homeless in the shelters and hotels are inspected by housing division staff, cleaned, maintained and repaired before any new families arrive.
Taking aim at another stereotype, that the shelters crowd school districts with out-of-town kids, Blass reported that of the 12 children at the Hampton Bays shelter last week, only two were enrolled in the local school district. The remainder were transported to their districts of origin,
As he described his department and its mission, Blass returned repeatedly to the role of politicians in Suffolk County's state mandated effort to house homeless . . . or lack thereof. Elected officials, he said, "Luxuriate in their exemption from the responsibility of housing the homeless." His department, which is a quasi state/county agency, has the true state mandate.
Elected officials remain "resoundingly silent" when it comes to dispelling inaccurate images of the county's shelter program, because homeless are, "without a constituency, helpless and don't vote. They are an inconvenience to most elected officials," Blass said.
And not only do officials turn away from helping the homeless, they often use them for political advantage. Taking aim at a statement recently made by Southampton Town Councilman Chris Nuzzi, who complained that Southampton was shouldering an unfair burden Blass exclaimed "give me a break . . . It's about getting political momentum. Stand at the gates, block the hordes and you are a hero, but at whose expense? These are people with shattered lives." The commissioner believes the public service mindset on the elected level regarding homeless is "make them go away."
And when not downright hostile, elected officials' attempts to deal with the shelter issue often fail when it comes to practicality. A recent initiative calls for housing no more than 12 families at one site. Since the department deploys caseworkers to each shelter and motel site every day, the cost of visiting smaller, but more numerous shelters would be "astronomical," Blass said. Plus, finding viable locations is no mean feat. "We've struggled for every single site we found . . . It is a major undertaking."
The motel converted into a shelter in Hampton Bays is the only one on the South Fork. With the exception of East Hampton and Southold, whose locations are too remote, all other towns in Suffolk County host more than just one shelter.