WEST SHOKAN—With an arctic air mass sweeping into the region, Andre Wilson was just happy to have the promise of a warm room at a local motel.
On Wednesday afternoon, he got word that the Ulster County Department of Social Services had come through for him—at least for the next week—putting him up in a single-room shelter.
To him, it will be like living in luxury. Sleeping in a real bed and taking a warm shower every day are things he has missed.
The 42-year-old Pennsylvania native has been living in the woods among the bears and coyotes in this rural stretch of Ulster County, trying to survive since he was smashed in the skull with a beer bottle at a picnic more than two years ago.
He suffered head trauma from the assault and has not been able to work since then.
Wilson lost his apartment and became a nomad, pitching his tent on state land wherever he could find a spot–eventually being ejected.
Since last winter, he’s been living on a friend’s property not far from the West Shokan Post Office off state Route 28A.
Last Friday, he invited HVNN.com into his tent to hear his story and appeal to a broad audience for help.
Wind gusts rippled the tarp covering his tent, which was kept warm by a small space heater—compliments of the property owner, who, in recent days, ran an electrical cord from his home to the tent.
The interview got emotional at times, with Wilson breaking down frequently and apologizing for the tears.
“My option is I can go to a shelter. I’ve checked out the shelters in Kingston, and they’re all big rooms with a bunch of people.
“They sent me to another place, and I told my social worker that they had bed bugs. She didn’t believe me, and then they ended up having bed bugs and shutting the whole thing down,” he said.
“The next place they sent me was in Port Ewen. It was me and six other guys in the room and after two nights of that, I was like, ‘I need to sleep.’ People come in and out because there’s no curfew. That’s when I ended up here.”
According to Wilson, he gets $160 a month from DSS—barely enough to pay a taxi each week to take him to Woodstock so he can do laundry or to buy toothpaste or other items people take for granted.
“I just don’t want to live like this anymore,” he said. “I need somebody to be an advocate for me to maybe talk to DSS or Social Security.
“There’s supposed to be safety nets and nobody’s helping me. I don’t understand how somebody can get hurt and then end up in a tent. It doesn’t make sense.”
According to a recent audit by New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, an estimated 343 people in Ulster County are homeless on any given night. The county has 17 shelters. Eleven of those examined in the audit were found to be adequate.
Michael Iapoce, the commissioner at the Ulster County Department of Social Services, would not comment specifically on Wilson’s claims or even if he was a client due to “confidentiality statutes.”
Generally speaking, he said DSS has “an obligation, responsibility and mandate to render assistance to any person dealing with housing issues.”
“We do have different options available that do include placement in shelters, and we utilize hotels and also have a warming center.”
The county additionally provides transportation to the warming center at the Clinton Avenue United Methodist Church in Midtown Kingston, Iapoce added.
Occasionally, DSS staff encounters those like Wilson who are reluctant to go to a shelter, but he said workers do what they can to find them housing or connect them to appropriate services.
Up until Wednesday afternoon, Wilson claims the motel option had not even been brought up, but after a reporter’s inquiry, he said DSS contacted him later that day and arranged to get him a room, beginning on Thursday.
Wilson said he is anxious to see where it leads.
“After a week, then what? Will I be back to the tent, or will they just move me around? It’s a start. I think in a week or two, I’m just going to end up back in a tent,” he said.
Michael Berg, the executive director at Family of Woodstock, said he hears similar stories all the time.
“Public (housing) assistance for a single individual is $446. The fair market rent as of 2017 for an efficiency or studio apartment is $724, so there’s no way the twain shall meet. The amount of money that is available does not, in any way, come close to the cost of housing, and there isn’t enough housing.”
Berg urged Wilson to come to Family’s office at 39 John St. in Kingston to get hooked up with the adult case management program, which not only offers short- and long-term housing, but referrals, drug and alcohol treatment as well as vocational and employment assistance services.
“It’s tough. I can’t say that I could close a shelter to have a single person who needs quiet. I’d love to, but I don’t have the resources,“ he said.
Wilson said he is counting on things changing and has faith that God has not deserted him in his darkest hour.
In between tears, he noted the many hardships that he has had to endure since he became homeless.
Wilson suffers from vertigo and has often lost his footing climbing the hill that leads to his tent.
Up until recently, he has kept warm with a table-top grill, where he throws in sticks and sometimes paper to build a camp fire.
Bears have found their way to his tent, looking for and often making off with food that he once kept in a cooler.
To wash his clothes, he either hitchhikes or takes a taxi to the nearest laundromat in Woodstock, a big expense for a homeless person.
The former forklift operator, who got laid off four years ago, also has to knock on the doors of those he knows in West Shokan, begging just to take a shower.
On top of everything else, Wilson has not seen his four children, ages 3 to 24, since he moved to Ulster County.
“I shouldn’t have to live that way. It’s ridiculous. I have to get by with help from the community. That’s basically what I’ve been doing.
“I know God doesn’t want me to live like this, so something’s going to change. I try to stay positive and think that tomorrow’s going to be better, but it’s just horrible that I have to go through this.”
Last December, Wilson launched a GoFundMe page in the hopes of raising enough money for a place to live through the winter.
He had a $5,000 goal, but only raised $355, barely enough to buy a tarp for his tent and other necessities to get through the year.
As Christmas approaches, Wilson said he his wish list includes permanent housing and a bus trip home to see his children.
“I haven’t gotten to see them since I got hurt,” he said through sobs. “I never really have enough money to do anything, so I can’t get down to Pennsylvania.”
To help, go to https://www.gofundme.com/2bd5drwc.