By KAITLYN AFFUSO
---- — PLATTSBURGH — A pallet of newspapers lay on the brick courtyard with dirty pizza boxes beside it, all drenched in the spring rain and damaged by Sunday afternoon hail.
A few SUNY Plattsburgh students huddled around coffee cups with their hoods up, preparing for the hours that lay ahead of them.
This was Box City, set up outside Angell College Center, part of the homelessness-awareness event put on by ETC Housing Corp. and the Clinton County Department of Social Services.
Student volunteers from the college’s Social Work Department arranged the shelter-less setup and, at another spot, a cot and table with a microwave and small refrigerator that represented the emergency housing provided to those who have no other resources.
Volunteers were asked to “take up residence” at 2:30 p.m. and stay until 10 p.m.
From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., a panel discussion was held in Angell College Center.
Shauna Miller, ETC Housing Corp. executive director; Starr Burke, a social welfare examiner at the Department of Social Services; and Amanda Haley Beaudette, another ETC Housing Corp. employee, answered questions and talked about the issue.
Also, William McNierney sat beside Beaudette, as living proof that people can pull themselves out of homelessness.
McNierney said it was two years before he decided it was time to get himself help.
“I was sick and tired of being sick and tired,” he said.
Miller said she and Burke organized the first-time event to create awareness in both the college and local community that there are people here who have no homes.
ETC — Evergreen Townhouse Community — on Tara Lane in the Town of Plattsburgh, has a dozen units that provide temporary residences for those without places to stay.
Often, Miller said, when she tells people what her job is, their response is: “There are homeless people here?”
Although creating awareness was a major goal of the afternoon, another was to break stereotypes that characterize the homeless, she said.
A person without a place to live isn’t necessarily out on the street in shabby clothes, asking for cash.
“We do a good job in the community providing services, but just because they’re not on a park bench, doesn’t mean they’re not there,” Burke said.
In many cases, a landlord will raise the cost of monthly rent, driving people out of their homes, Miller said. The decrease in job opportunities and inflation of prices has a significant effect on the issue, she said.
Although not present at Sunday’s event, Maureen Bradish, director of the recently closed Family Promise of the North Country, spoke in the past on a lack of affordable housing being a major cause of homelessness.
Family Promise, which served homeless families by providing overnight stays with volunteers at local houses of worship, also helped participants find accommodations, jobs and sort out other issues.
That program, which lost vital funding and was forced to shut down late last year, augmented the Social Services program that provides temporary housing for those in need at low-cost motels.
“A small twist of fate, and it can be any one of us,” Burke said of becoming homeless.
Miller said the community wears blinders when it comes to the reality of the issue here — people don’t recognize it or ignore the issue.
It is those blinders she said she wants to get rid of.
Not many turned out for the panel discussion. And few were acting as participants during the early hours of Box City, but those who did perused a “Things to Think About” list and played the role of being homeless. Different scenarios were detailed with extra complications many suffer with, such as mental illness or health issue.
Mock newspapers with ads for apartments and jobs helped the participants work to better their situations.
“I admire my clients every day,” Miller said. “I don’t think I could survive that (being homeless).”
Martha Schultz, a SUNY Plattsburgh social-work major, said that, although the weather was lousy, it provided more reality for those who participated in Box City.
“(Homelessness) is one of those things people don’t notice, and if they do, they ignore it because it can be awkward.”
She said Box City was a significant element in Sunday’s event because it demonstrated the real-life situation of those struggling with being homeless.
A table was set up to collect donations of hygiene products, including toothbrushes, toothpaste and soap, to promote better health.
Schultz said bad hygiene is embarrassing, which complicates finding employment.
Miller said she hopes to host the event annually to increase awareness and decrease the number of people who have no homes.
No summer events are planned, but ETC Housing Corp. will hold a Great Pumpkin Race in October and a Gibson Brothers concert in January 2014, both as fundraisers.
Learn more about ETC Housing Corp. by calling 563-2223.
To get assistance, reach Social Services at 565-3300 during normal business hours or call 574-3124 for after-hours emergency housing.