Hearing the homeless

Updated: Aug. 16, 2022 at 6:00 PM EDT
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WATERTOWN, New York (WWNY) - It was a year ago this month. A Watertown rooming house was suddenly condemned, leaving dozens of people homeless. What happened next sent shockwaves through the community that are still being felt today.

A tent city sprang up last August outside 661 Factory Street. The people had no place to live, and it took several days to find homes for them. It was the type of thing you’d see in bigger cities - not in places like Watertown.

For many, the sight of people living in tents was a wake-up call - a realization that homelessness is a problem in our area.

A year later, Jefferson County continues to see a surge in homelessness.

During the first half of 2022, the county helped 251 people find emergency housing. That compares to 133 people during the same period last year.

However, there are still plenty of people living on the streets and in the woods around Watertown. Who are they and what’s life like for them?

When it comes to Watertown’s homeless population, men outnumber women two to one. More than 40 percent suffer from mental illness or substance use disorders - or both.

One woman told me she has no place to live. That was just before she fell asleep at a picnic table - a syringe by her side.

A few feet away, two homeless men combine their food. Another man sits alone with his suitcase. They’re surrounded by discarded sneakers and underwear, blankets and cans of food, a teddy bear and cigarette butts.

It’s just one of the places the homeless come for shelter. Down the street, there’s cardboard in a doorway where people have been sleeping. Then there are the woods. Clothing and blankets here. Tent poles and pillows there. Syringes everywhere.

“Whatever street you want to go down in Watertown, you’re gonna see one of us around,” said Larry Webb. “I already had my clothing stole (sic) twice, rained on, threatened and been through it all. You see it all out here. You see the good, you see the bad and you see the ugly.”

When we met Larry Webb, he’d been living on the streets of Watertown for a couple of weeks. He said he was waiting for the government to help him get housing. Larry also told us he suffers from bipolar disorder and that he has been homeless off and on for 11 years - not just in Watertown, but in other places around the country.

“I don’t want to spend the rest of my life out here, especially come wintertime. You’re not gonna survive the winter here. I almost froze to death last winter,” he said.

Larry describes himself as one of the “good ones” - a homeless person who doesn’t do drugs, steal or resort to violence.

He’s grateful for the help he receives - snacks from strangers, food from the Salvation Army, and tips about safe places to lay his head at night.

“I have several different places I sleep - sometimes down by the river, sometimes on my friend’s back porch, sometimes just go lay down in the woods,” he said.

Because other homeless people have stolen from him before, Larry hides his suitcase containing his pillow, blanket and a change of clothing.

He carries food, personal hygiene items and other things in a backpack at all times.

“My favorite thing of all,” Larry said as he blew a toy horn. “That’s my comedy act.”

Larry says he’d like to see a shelter where the homeless can go to escape the elements. He also wants the community to remember the homeless are people with feelings.

“They say words don’t hurt, but sometimes they do. People could be a little kinder,” he said.

Watertown’s homeless problem is being called a “humanitarian crisis” and community leaders are trying to help. Plans are in the works for a new shelter and a warming center. We’ll have more on that Wednesday at 6 p.m.

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