Check Out Time

By Haley Burton

February 14, 2013 Updated Feb 14, 2013 at 8:30 PM EDT

(WBNG Binghamton) When homeless shelters fill up, where can people go? In Broome County, taxpayers foot the bill to put some them up in motels.

The county found out some people are using the program even if they don't need it. Now they are giving them a wake-up call.

"This is becoming a disturbing trend. Not only in Broome County but across New York state. Individuals claim to be homeless in hopes of being placed in hotels at taxpayers' expense," said Republican County Executive Debbie Preston.

Broome County uses four homeless shelters. But when the beds are full, the county has standing reservations at five hotels where homeless who qualify can check in. It's a part of the Homeless Safety Net program.

"We noticed over the last couple of years in 2011 and 2012, that number (of uses) had gone up. We also were getting calls from the hotels that there were drunken escapades and the police were called or they were sanctioned in another county or maybe they had warrants out somewhere else," said Art Johnson, Department of Social Services Commissioner.

In the fourth quarter of 2012, Broome County initiated an aggressive hotel sweep program.

The Department of Social Services met with Broome Security who conducts work to combat fraud. Together they mapped out a plan to bring integrity to the process of people applying for homeless assistance.

"We want to make sure there is integrity to the process in everything that we do because we're entrusted with the public's tax dollars," Johnson said.

According to Broome County:

In the fourth quarter of 2011, 244 people were in the Safety Net program. Of those, 158 (64 percent) were placed in shelters, 29 (11 percent) found alternative housing and 61 (25 percent) were placed in motels.

The average length of stay in motels was 15 to 16 days and there were no violations of the independent housing plan.

In the fourth quarter of 2012, 272 people were in the Safety Net program. Of those, 129 (47 percent) were placed in shelters, 93 (34 percent) found alternative housing and 50 (18 percent) were placed in hotels.

The average length of stay in motels was three to six days and there were 11 violations of the independent housing plan.

"Just in the last quarter, we've saved little over $109,000," Preston said.

The process begins when a person comes to DSS asking for homeless assistance.

"At that time, they would meet face to face with one of our investigators. We would really sit down, go over their case, assets, income and what options they may have to them. Then we'd really sit down and try to help them find some housing. If not, work with the agency to get them placed so they are safe," said James Dadamio, Director of the Broome County Security Division. "It's not so much turning them away and kicking them out the door and having them with no place to go. We're finding alternate places for them to live. That's the important piece. That's the success of this program. They are being taken care of."

Screeners and investigators work with the client to try to find them alternative housing options, such as a homeless shelter or with family or friends, before a motel is considered.

If a client ends up in a motel, Broome Security checks in to make sure they're following the hotel's rules and regulations and the program's guidelines.

"Throughout the first three days of their placement in a hotel, we would go and do visits to them at the hotel. We would be in contact with them, in conjunction with the case workers to see how they are progressing with job search and permanent housing search," Dadamio said.

Rules include no visitors, guests, alcohol, drugs, illegal substances or illegal activities.

"For the most part, people are (abiding by the rules). We've had about 12 cases over the last couple months since we've implemented this that they didn't follow the rules and we were able to sanction them through the agency," Dadamio said.

If clients are found in violation, there is a strike system. Two strikes, and program members could be sanctioned and barred from the program.

James Cramer, Senior Investigator for Broome Security, conducts the searches.

"They are just unannounced visits. We knock on the door. We do a quick scans of the rooms and talk to the hotel managers," Cramer, said. "They've got a landlord log that they are supposed to be contacting at least four landlords a day and to keep bringing that back."

Those who enforce the program say the past few months have been very successful.

"We're very serious about making sure people are looking for permanent housing and participating in work activities so then people are moving on. They are finding other housing," Johnson said.

And their efforts won't stop.

"I feel this an important program that is saving Broome County big money and we'll continue to do this in 2013," Preston said.