By Ken Sturtz
Patrick Waite of Fulton has seen substantial change in human services over four-decade career
When Patrick Waite reflects on his career in human services he marvels at how different things were when he started his first job in the late 1970s.
The way society viewed and cared for those in need, such as the homeless and developmentally disabled, was dramatically different. While many things in human services have changed for the better since then, much remains to be done, he said.
Waite retired in June from Oswego County Opportunities as deputy executive director after 41 years with the organization. He isn’t walking away from helping people, but he is planning to take a break.
So, what kept him with the same agency for four decades?
“I just always embraced OCO’s mission as an anti-poverty agency and I always had a strong heart for working with people with disabilities,” he said. “That kept me going.”
Over the years he had opportunities to work for other human service agencies, but OCO constantly offered him new opportunities and challenges so the work never got old. But when Waite moved to the area for his first job it wasn’t with OCO.
He grew up in Ilion, near Utica, and considered going into special education, but changed his mind and studied human services. After college he moved to Oswego County and took a job working with adults with developmental disabilities. A few years later, in 1981, OCO hired him for a newly created caseworker position dealing with developmentally disabled adults in the agency’s residential program.
At the time OCO’s residential program for developmentally disabled adults was tiny, consisting of just four community residences, known to the public as group homes.
“Back in the day when someone was born with a developmental disability, often the doctor would say just put them in an institution and go on with your life and forget about them,” Waite said. “A lot of families did.”
But things were changing by the late 1970s and early 1980s. State facilities had long been used to warehouse children and adults with developmental disabilities, resulting in horrific cases of abuse and neglect.
After the exposure of the conditions at the notorious Willowbrook State School in New York City, New York state started moving residents out of institutions.
As the state began emphasizing active treatment and community-based programs, Waite spent much of his time working to find residents new homes.
“They were pushing people out of the institutions so I did a lot of placements,” Waite said. “I always found it exciting to bring someone out of the institution.”
It wasn’t always an easy job. Waite did screenings at developmental centers and worked with families to place residents. He often had to contact family to get permission to move them. Some were hard to find. Others were hesitant to move their loved ones after struggling with the decision to put them in an institution in the first place.
He also worked with parents who cared for their son or daughter at home, but were aging and knew they wouldn’t be able to care for them in the future. He said those families often struggled the most with deciding if placing their loved one in a home was the right thing to do.
As OCO needed to develop more group homes, Waite’s job changed. He became a case supervisor and then coordinator of developmental disabilities. He worked with real estate agents to find suitable houses and develop new group homes.
Opposition in the community was intense. Waite said he frequently made presentations at public hearings and was often screamed at by angry neighbors who didn’t want a group home opening nearby. He said he played a strong advocacy role and spent a lot of time trying to educate people regarding their fears of the developmentally disabled.
“They’re just people and they have some deficits,” he said. “But they still have the desire to have the same kind of life that you and I have.”
At the start of his career, OCO was taking people out of institutions and placing them in eight- to 10-bed houses. Over the years the trend was toward smaller four-bed houses. OCO still operates 15 homes for the developmentally disabled, but closed two of them. Waite said it was partly due to workforce challenges, but also because of a shift away from the group home model.
“So that for me, having been there for 40 years, was a huge turnaround in my thinking that we have to look at downsizing our footprint as opposed to expanding,” Waite said. “And if we’re going to expand, are we going to expand in a different way?”
The shift has been toward encouraging the developmentally disabled to be more involved and engaged in directing their services. Many families today want their loved ones to live on their own as opposed to having 24/7 care in a group home. Many can live semi-independently with the proper support, Waite said. OCO also operates supervised apartments.
Waite’s responsibilities at OCO grew over time. He became director of the mental hygiene division, which encompassed all the agency programs dealing with developmental disabilities and mental health. He became deputy executive director in 2013.
“I really enjoyed the development part of it,” he said. “In the last few years we’ve also gotten into more affordable housing.”
Affordable housing has become an important part of addressing homelessness. There’s been some denial that homelessness, often thought of as an urban problem, exists in rural Oswego County, Waite said. But the homeless population, particularly those who couch-surf and have no permanent residence, has grown.
Increasing affordable housing has been a struggle due to community opposition and the nature of the population being served, Waite said.
“In some ways working in affordable housing offers new challenges,” he said. “You’re working with homeless people who maybe don’t want to be housed or who are in tough situations.”
But successes have come with the challenges. In 2019, OCO opened Champlain Commons in Scriba. The complex includes 56 units of affordable housing. Another affordable housing project is expected to open in Pulaski.
OCO recently completed its strategic plan for the next three years and Waite said that in addition to affordable housing, access to transportation and growing food insecurity were other major issues identified.
While OCO has been working to address those issues, he said the agency has also had to deal with significant workforce issues in the last few years. Many of the jobs OCO needs to fill are difficult and pay relatively little, an issue the agency will need to address to sustain its programs.
“The agency is struggling, like everyone else, with people,” Waite said. “We were looking at strategies to keep people; recruitment and retention is key.”
And while Waite’s retirement means one more opening, he isn’t walking away from helping the community.
He is looking forward to a break and spending time with his four grandchildren. He and his wife still live in Fulton, however, and Waite is active in the Fulton Sunrise Rotary. He also sits on the boards of three human services groups.
And while he has no immediate plans, he hasn’t ruled out going back to work in human services.
“I’ll still have my hands in it,” he said.