Panhandlers driving away business

A new housing initiative aims to get homeless off Syracuse's downtown streets.

More than 400 people in Onondaga County live without a roof over their heads on any given day according to the Housing and Homeless Coalition of Syracuse and Onondaga County.  But a fragment of this population, who have claimed an I-81 underpass as their home, have emerged as a problem for at least one businessman who said their presence is scaring off his clients. 

Photo: Molly Smith
Life on the streets — homeless encampment under I-81 overpass near Smith Houseware and Restaurant Supply, 500 Erie Blvd E. in downtown Syracuse.

John Kuppermann, the sixth generation owner of Smith Housewares and Restaurant Supply in Syracuse, says that the homeless have been a growing a problem especially in the past two years.

“They are quite literally adjacent to my property,” he said.  “They urinate and defecate on the property.” 

Kuppermann noted that this particular homeless encampment has been turning away customers, causing complaints, and he is losing business referrals as a result.

“The economy is bad enough,” he said.  “The homeless are driving away business.”

Trying to help the business owner, the Department of Neighborhood and Business Development created a new plan last week to get these individuals off the streets.  Commissioner Paul Driscoll said the process requires a different kind of approach.

“The question is what do you do with homeless people living on public property, and how do you entice them to take advantage of the services in place?” Driscoll explained.

The answer is not clear-cut.  Because many of the homeless—or the “hard-to-service population,” as Driscoll calls them—have mental health problems, criminal backgrounds, and drug addictions, Driscoll and the coalition discourage the public from giving them money.  Instead of fueling these additions with monetary donations, officials are pursuing a “housing-first strategy.”

“We have to get them shelter first,” Driscoll explained.  “Then we will get to all the other issues that got them to that point.”

“The rationalization behind it was that most of these folks who were living under the bridge have substance abuse issues and were using the money they were given when panhandling to purchase drugs and alcohol,” said Melissa Marrone, coordinator of the coalition.  “How concerned citizens engage with people who are panhandling is their choice, though we believe there are more effective and efficient ways to donate cash to help these individuals.”

More effective and efficient ways such as providing meals, clothing, and basic day-to-day needs, the coalition states its mission to be.  Serving as the umbrella organization for this project, the coalition brings together other groups to work toward the same goal.

John Tumino, former owner of Syracuse’s Asti Caffe restaurant, is now a minister and president of In My Father’s Kitchen, a nonprofit that provides the hungry with food and basic necessities.  The Syracuse-based community center at 501 Hawley Street is part of the coalition and supports the housing-first strategy.

“There’s got to be an out-of-the-box idea bypassing shelters,” Tumino said.  “What we need is a new way of doing it.”

And that’s just what’s being done—as of this week, the four homeless men camping out near Smith’s have been moved into an apartment with the help of Tumino and several Catholic charities in the coalition.  Tumino worked with the men to furnish their new place and get settled in.

“Now that they’re in, that’s step one.  Step two is helping them become successful now that they are indoors and teach them how to live indoors,” Tumino said.  “It’s not overnight, this is a long-term goal.”

Kuppermann can attest to that—just three days since the move-in, he says the men are right back to their old spot.

“We’re right back to where we were a couple weeks ago,” Kuppermann said.  “The city needs to get a lot more aggressive with these guys.”

Post new comment

* Field must be completed for your comment to appear on The NewsHouse
The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.