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County Jail Gets New Name, New Direction

The Albany County Sheriff has begun a new initiative to house homeless people in the county jail — which itself is getting a new name.

Credit WAMC photo by Dave Lucas

The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness website shows New York ranks second behind California when it comes to the total number of people experiencing homelessness.

In the city of Albany, it's not uncommon to encounter people holding signs and asking for money at busy intersections and entrances to shopping malls and movie theatres. Many more live in the shadows.

Now, Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple is introducing a new initiative that begins with a new name.      "Effective immediately, this place will be known as, not the Albany County Correctional Facility. It'll be known as the Albany County Corrections and Rehabilitative Services Center."

Credit WAMC photo by Dave Lucas

Speaking Monday in Colonie, Apple says within the next few weeks, what had been an empty wing will be transformed into an entire cell block of housing for the homeless. Twenty-five first-floor cells are ready for occupation now, with 25 more under construction upstairs.  

"This facility houses 1,040. Currently today we're in the 40 percentile. We have about, needless to say, about a 60 percent vacancy.  We have about 100 boarders here right now. So if you take them out, puts us down into the 30 percent area. With bail reform coming we expect it even go a little bit lower. So we've got this huge behemoth of a building up here and what do we do with it.?"

Apple is partnering with several agencies including CDTA, St. Peter's Health Partners, Capital City Rescue Mission and Albany's Homeless and Travelers Aid Society, where Liz Hitt is Executive Director:   "This facility could be the start of ending homelessness within Albany County. Albany County, and I don't say this lightly, could be the first county in this country to end homelessness."

Initially, only men will be housed at the facility. Apple believes they'll be attracted by word-of-mouth.  "Word will spread. Listen, we wanna take baby steps. We wanna do it right. We wanna make sure that we also provide a safe atmosphere. So, I don't think we'll have an issue filling it."

Credit WAMC photo by Dave Lucas

Meals will be provided. Each refurbished cell is equipped with a comfy bed, fluffy pillow and flat-screen TV. Apple likened them to "tiny houses,” each with its own window and door, toilet and sink. Apple says it wasn't easy to take a jail and make it "homey."     "There will be some rules. There will check-ins at the office where the window is, used to control all the doors and everything. Now it'll just be an office where we have staff sitting there that will check people in and talk to them and see what's going on. But it will again, we want it to be, we don't want you to feel like you're confined. It's more of like a motel. And when I mention that, that's the other part of this is that this could have a massive amount of savings for Albany County, because the county has to provide housing. The county is paying a lot of hotel rooms that you probably wouldn't put your worst enemy in. The county has people in some of those places, so, if we don't have to put folks in there, like there's places down in the city that have just rooms that aren't in the greatest shape and sharing a bathroom, 10, 15 men. So you know, we have, each person here has their own bathroom. So if we don't have to fund that we should have a huge savings as well."

Apple says one of the Sheriff's Homeless Improvement Project, or SHIP’s goals, is to make each individual a better person. It’s not the first time Apple has expanded the facility’s typical role — he also worked to house migrants who were detained at the southern border.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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