Even in an unusually warm winter, the snow and ice eventually arrive.
It’s the afternoon of Feb. 27, and Natasha Lafontant is awaiting the first-of-the-year snowstorm expected that evening which will eventually drop six inches of white stuff in the area. As the social service supervisor for the Warming Center in Pomona, a project funded by Rockland County and operated by Catholic Charities Community Services of Rockland, she is prepared for a large crowd to welcome for the evening.
“We have a mix of individuals,” she says about the Warming Center – don’t call it a shelter, she adds – which operates from November through April, providing a space for the homeless in rural/suburban Rockland to find a place for the evening, as well as complemented by counseling and services intended to assist them in getting a permanent roof over their heads. It’s that ongoing assistance, she says, which makes the Warming Center different from many shelters.
But we do have to have something to keep everybody safe from the treacherous conditions that winter can offer.
The Warming Center has been operating for the past five years, including through the Covid pandemic when accommodations were made for social distancing. Visitors check-in for the evening and are fed and provided a cot, and are required to leave in the mornings, as preparations are made for another round of visitors. There are both one-time and long-term clients. The facility is located near the complex of social service offices for the county.
“We have a mix,” she says about the upwards of 60 nightly visitors, up from 40 in the past year. “About a half are the undocumented,” she says, noting that they are often employed yet find that the winter months are particularly difficult as gardening and yard work is put on hiatus. The other half are those struggling with addictions and mental health concerns. “They may not be doing well with their sobriety,” she says.
Rockland County offers its own set of challenges to those struggling to keep a roof over their heads. Rents are high, available housing is scarce. Unlike big cities, there is no shelter system, “but we do have to have something to keep everybody safe from the treacherous conditions that winter can offer,” says Natasha. Low-wage workers often can’t afford apartments. And the addicted and those with mental health issues are also worked with, even if the results are often not seen immediately.
Daniel Eudene, executive director of Catholic Charities Community Services of Rockland, notes that one of the regular visitors is a woman working two jobs. Sometimes she finds that the rent in the area is beyond her means. A cheap one-bedroom apartment can go for $1,400, and a single room can run as high as $1,000.
“A county like Rockland doesn’t have a huge population. But it would be nice to have solutions (to the housing crisis),” he says. The young woman client “is struggling to find a place she can afford. It’s not easy.”