Advocates urge help for the homeless

ROCHESTER — While the doors of Sanctuary Village for the homeless remain closed, a New York City-based organization that advocates for and includes homeless people in its work was in town to offer guidance and ideas to help this population.

Picture the Homeless, a grassroots organization founded in 1999 by two homeless men, is calling for a "A New Poor People’s Campaign" based on the movement first created by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967, which advocated for economic and human rights for all.

"The poor and homeless men and women is not (an issue) about those people over there. This is about all of us," Willie Baptist, a homeless activist for more than 40 years, said during an April 16 event organized by the Social Welfare Action Alliance and SUNY Brockport students. More than 60 people attended the presentation held at Brockport’s Metro Center.

"We are all one paycheck, one health-care crisis away (from homelessness)," Baptist added. "I may be homeless today. You may be homeless tomorrow."

To improve the situation of the poor and homeless, advocates must become organized and work together, he said, because it’s a big problem that will require a big solution.

"This country only knows one thing: power," said Baptist, who also organized the National Union of the Homeless, which now has more than 15,000 members in 25 chapters across the country. "And power comes from organization. … We only have each other. And if we don’t realize the power in us coming together, we’re not going to win a better life in Rochester, the country or the world."

Rochester is home to more than 600 homeless residents, who had finally found a place to lay their heads for the winter in Sanctuary Village on Canal Street that subsequently closed on April 15, said Sister of Mercy Grace Miller, director of the House of Mercy, a local homeless shelter.

Sister Miller said although city and Monroe County officials have reported publicly that all those residents were placed with other shelters and organizations, including the House of Mercy, she has been discovering that some of them are back on the streets.

As she works on a permanent solution at an undisclosed location, Sister Miller said that she had hoped Mayor Lovely Warren would allow Sanctuary Village to stay open.

"Some are out in tents. They go wherever think won’t be pushed away by police," Sister Millers said of the homeless. "Some are coming to the House of Mercy. We’ve taken people in and are in an overcrowded situation. But we sure don’t want them out on the streets. What bothers me is the lack of compassion on the part of city, on the part of the county."

The city is working with Sister Miller and a consortium of homeless advocates to find a permanent solution for this population, said the mayor’s spokeswoman, Jessica Alaimo.

"Sanctuary Village was always meant to be a temporary solution," Alaimo said.

Sister Miller, who also spoke during the April 16 program, noted that people often call her a "rebel" for constantly challenging the powers that be, such as the mayor.

"The system keeps people down," she remarked. "The system keeps people oppressed. … You need to hear their stories. They are heartbreaking. They need compassion, understanding and love."

Homeless residents in any area need to be part of any process working on viable solutions, explained Baptist, a formerly homeless dad who lived through the Watts riots in California and has served on Picture the Homeless’ board since 2011.

According to information at www.picturethehomeless.org, the organization — whose motto is "Don’t talk about us. Talk with us." — forms its board of directors with people who were or are homeless.

The organization’s efforts have led to the reversal of a policy change that had allowed New York City police officers to arrest homeless people who couldn’t produce identification, explained Nikita Price, Picture the Homeless’ civil rights organizer. The group also is looking at the vacant property throughout New York City as a way to help the more than 33,000 families living in shelters, including nearly 24,000 children, Price said.

The homeless also need people to stand with them, said Yvonne Standbrook, who during the April 16 program told her story of experiencing homelessness locally for 19 months.

She lost her home of 25 years after her unemployment benefits ran out, she said. Standbrook is still shocked at the demeaning and inhumane treatment she received during that time, she added.

"My plan was to rent a room, get a job and get back on my feet," Standbrook said. "That was easier said than done. People don’t want to rent to a homeless person or deal with DSS (Department of Social Services)."

She tried a shelter, where her belongings were stolen, and even lived in her car and ended up placing her possessions in storage, Standbrook explained. With help from Home Ministries in Webster and other agencies, she has found an apartment and now hopes to become an advocate for the homeless, she said.

"I have found so many angels along the way," Standbrook remarked.

Sister Miller concurred with Baptist that people in the community must stand up to the system and fight for the homeless, including churches that have largely stayed silent.

"We all can make a difference helping people live healthy … lives, but we need to work together," she said.

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