ROCHESTER — A team of Catholic advocates who recently conducted a sweep of homeless people around Rochester found that some of them have no shelter of any kind, while others are sleeping in various places from a garden at St. Mary Church to a portable toilet.
Sister of Mercy Grace Miller, director of the House of Mercy, presented the findings of the sweep during a May 29 press conference, during which she called on the community to offer temporary housing for its homeless population while advocates work to secure a permanent shelter.
"They (the homeless population) got a building and then they (city authorities) said you have to be out," Sister Miller said of Sanctuary Village, the temporary shelter on Canal Street that closed April 15. "Then they put up a fence. It’s a direct statement against the homeless. And I think that (fence) is why so many of them are in hiding."
Sister Miller and about 20 other activists, including some who are homeless, held a protest as well as the press conference May 29 outside of a fenced-in area underneath the Frederick Douglass-Susan B. Anthony Memorial Bridge. The area, where last winter a group of homeless had set up a temporary encampment called Tent City, is located behind 99 South Ave. City officials bulldozed the area in December.
Sister Miller said the money spent on erecting the chain-link fence in the area under the bridge, which went up in the days following Sanctuary Village’s closure, could have been better used to help the homeless.
"The message was clear: Don’t go back there" to the former Tent City area once the Canal Street shelter was closed, she said.
Since the closure of Sanctuary Village, more and more people are found on the streets in weekly sweeps done by a team of Catholic workers, noted James Murphy, a Catholic worker with St. Joseph House of Hospitality. On May 28, a team found 24 people on the streets, including one each from Honeoye Falls, Irondequoit and Palmyra.
"It’s growing and it’s going to keep getting bigger," Murphy said of the homeless crisis. "We (also) need more creative solutions."
"If we had shelter, no one would have to worry about us being a nuisance because we don’t have a place to stay," added Horace Medlock, who lived at Sanctuary Village for two weeks and currently is looking for a place to live.
He held up a sign that read, "People are back on the streets!!" and stood in the entrance lane for Interstate 490 as cars drove by, some honking in support.
During the May 29 press conference, Sister Miller said she wanted to alert the community that a temporary shelter is again needed for the people who have returned to the streets. She continues to work on a permanent location in the downtown area and has a site in mind but there are environmental issues that need to be worked out, she added.
"We are calling on the community to come forward and help us in finding a building, a permanent building … but also to speak to the authorities, to speak to the county executive, to speak to those in power to make this housing a reality for the homeless in the city," she said. "A city this size, it’s a shame that there are so many homeless out there in the streets."
The House of Mercy also continues to raise money for such a shelter as well as the renovations and increase in staffing that will be needed through a GoFundMe campaign begun last winter. The campaign, at www.gofundme.com/SanctuaryVillage has raised more than $90,000. Part of the money was used to operate Sanctuary Village with an on-site social worker until it closed, Sister Miller noted.
House of Mercy also is collaborating with the St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality and St. Mary Church on a Housing First initiative, called the Dorothy Day House, which could be expanded with a permanent shelter in place, Murphy said. The initiative provides apartments in a building across from St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality for homeless residents who are hard to place because of substance-abuse addictions or mental-health issues.
The Housing First model is in place in Seattle and New York, and focuses on providing housing first and then dealing with any other issues for a person experiencing homelessness, according to endhomelessness.org.
"We feel it’s better to take them off the streets first, then we can find them an apartment," Murphy said. "It’s certainly a much more compassionate (approach)."