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HEARTH program helps NNY resident find sustainable housing

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Just a little bit of assistance from the Watertown Urban Mission’s Helping Eradicate All Roads to Homelessness program provided Rita F. Calhoun with a home.

Ms. Calhoun split up with her husband 1 years ago, found an apartment in the city and had the first month’s rent, but her disability-only income wasn’t enough for a security deposit. Within a short time, the 53-year-old was set up in the apartment, equipped with furniture and other items from the agency’s thrift store and food pantry.

She said sharing her story might inspire those who can to give to the agency’s $2 million “Mission: Possible” capital campaign to raise funds to create an endowment, and to renovate the 247 Factory St. building to create more privacy and efficiency for clients and staff members.

“It feels fantastic; it’s like I have control of my life again,” Ms. Calhoun said about her apartment. “There’s not the stress (I) had before. They were real good about helping with things I wasn’t even aware of. I keep finding out more and more they do.”

It was HEARTH program Director Melissa A. Dickson who Ms. Calhoun said was her saving grace.

“Our clients have an incredible spirit in who they are,” Ms. Dickson said. “They amaze me over and over again.”

She helps clients find or maintain stable housing through assistance with security deposits, rent payments and utility payments. If the Jefferson County Department of Social Services cannot cover the cost of hotel or motel stays, HEARTH may pick that up.

The county department received a grant for HEARTH, and contracts with the Urban Mission to provide the service, according to Urban Mission Executive Director Erika F. Flint. A $1.9 million grant in federal stimulus money was awarded in August 2009 for the project, which aims to prevent and reduce homelessness in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties. The Urban Mission has handled the Jefferson County share. Although the original grant ended in 2011, a similar grant, which provides about $250,000 a year for three years, continues the HEARTH program. That grant ends next year.

“The main objective is to eradicate homelessness, to prevent homelessness, and to help people who are currently homeless find sustainable housing,” she said. “With stable housing, it’s the first step toward a dignified life. It leads to jobs; it leads to healthier lifestyles.”

That has proven true for Nathan D. Mills, who was homeless for two weeks. He left New Jersey a couple of months ago to relocate to Northern New York with a friend, but after a falling out, he “had no choice but to take to the streets.” He said he found a job and went to DSS for help, but he hadn’t yet gotten his first paycheck so he didn’t have money for a security deposit.

Mr. Mills said he’d go to work, then go back to his car to sleep, and if he needed to stay warm for a bit, he’d visit local establishments that were open.

“I was depressed for the time, less than two weeks,” he said. “I can’t imagine people who go longer. How do people go for so long without giving up?”

Mr. Mills now lives in an apartment in the city, and obtained furnishings through vouchers to the mission’s Impossible Dream Thrift Store. He said it was the Urban Mission and the HEARTH program that gave him hope.

“Our goal for all of our programs isn’t to save lives; it’s to transform lives,” Ms. Flint said.

Capital campaign funds will be used to modify HEARTH program space to create more private consultation areas, and provide handicapped accessibility to the program’s office.

Throughout the last two years, HEARTH at the mission has helped 1,577 people.

“There’s no way I could have done it without them,” Ms. Calhoun said.

Urban Mission Development Director Andrew G. Mangione said the campaign has raised about $1.8 million so far. To contribute, drop off cash or send a check payable to Watertown Urban Mission, with “capital campaign” written in the memo line, to Watertown Urban Mission, 247 Factory St., Watertown, N.Y. 13601. Pledges may be made over a five-year span.

Donations also can be made online via the mission’s website, http://wdt.me/r36bkA.

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