Since 2015, Tyrone Hodge has moved in and out of Rochester’s shelter system. The 52-year-old father of three found work hard to come by and he could not keep up with the rent on a three-bedroom apartment.
Hodge felt demoralized and frustrated as he sought housing—leaving and returning to shelters while searching for employment and trying to attend school and earn a degree. He ended up at the House of Mercy.
“(Other unhoused individuals) were all piled on the floor sleeping,” says Hodge, as he recalls his first night at that shelter. “I was stepping over individuals—’Watch this guy’s head, don’t step on this lady,’ the worker told me. He took me over and pointed at a chair—‘This is where you get to be,’ he said. I was so thankful for this chair at the time. Later, I took it aside and laid on the ground like everyone else.”
Now, Hodge has a job at Lifetime Assistance, and is a coordinator for the Rochester Homeless Union, which is calling for the city of Rochester and Monroe County to find affordable and adequate shelter for the area’s homeless population. Yesterday, he and others protested at the Hotel Cadillac, asking for it to be returned to the poor as the Delta variant spreads across the nation, increasing COVID-19 infection rates.
“We’re calling on the city and the county to house all homeless people by Oct. 15, to not repeat another winter during COVID-19 where shelters were shut down and our homeless were dying in the winter,” says Sabine Adler, an organizer with RHU.
Battling a crisis
Approximately 815 people in Monroe County were homeless on any given night last year, data from the National Alliance to End Homelessness show. Per 10,000 people of the general population (which is how the Alliance measures it), 11 were homeless in 2020. Of these, seven were individuals and the rest were families.
Statewide, more than 91,200 people were without shelter on any given night in 2020. Per 10,000 people, that number tops 47 in total—more than 24 were families.
From 2019 to 2020, homelessness nationwide increased by 2 percent, the Alliance found, marking the fourth straight year of growth in the homeless population. Previously, homelessness was on the decline. In New York, homelessness is up 46 percent since 2007—which is as far back as the data goes. When compared with 2019, homelessness in the state declined by 1 percent.
Those numbers—which might not include those who live on couches with friends and family—are expected to increase again this year. Additionally, as winter approaches, the homeless are likely to be without a roof over their heads.
“I would say it’s gotten worse; we don’t see any decrease in homelessness,” says Sister Grace Miller, founder and executive director of the House of Mercy. “In fact, we see more problems; there are more and more homeless. And housing is not available to them. And so, you have them on the streets, you have them in shelters, and there are not enough shelter beds.”
The House of Mercy has 82 beds; the facility can put cots in its dining area and has been able to take care of up to 149 people. When the pandemic arrived, some were shifted into hotels, because social-distancing guidelines did not allow for crowding.
“So far, we’re all OK,” Miller says. “But I worry about what might happen in the future, if it gets any worse than it is now.”
Unhoused families are a different population than the chronically homeless. Family Promise of Greater Rochester served 128 families last year in its prevention, diversion and rehousing program. In the past, the agency has turned to congregational space at churches, temples and mosques to offer shelter. However, the pandemic prompted FPGROC to seek apartments to house families as they battled through a life-changing event.
“When the pandemic hit, we had to pivot and then we went to using a hotel for about 10 months and then in 2021, we decided that it would be best to rent apartments for our families,” says Kim Hunt-Uzelac, executive director of FPGROC. “So, now we have six apartments that we have been able to utilize throughout the community for shelter space.”
Last year, Open Door Mission served more meals, housed more guests and helped families more than ever before, writes Anna Valeria-Iseman, executive director, in an online letter.
The agency provided 92,307 meals and 14,517 emergency beds in 2020. During the pandemic, Open Door worked with Monroe County to move guests to the Radisson Hotel and Rodeway Inn.
Across the nation, homeless programs provide shelter for most people (61 percent) experiencing homelessness, the National Alliance to End Homelessness reports. However, families with children are least likely to remain unsheltered while young people living away from family (50 percent) are unsheltered and may not have the same access to services.
Addressing the gap
According to data from HUD Exchange, Rochester has 577 year-round beds in the shelter system. Those beds are likely to be inadequate in the face of rising COVID-19 infections and the looming end to the state eviction moratorium, which expires Aug. 31. Lawmakers extended the moratorium on May 4 and legislation has been introduced to extend it again until Oct. 31. (Last week, a new federal eviction moratorium for counties with “substantial” and “high” levels of community transmission was put in place through Oct. 3.)
Across New York, there is a shortage of rental homes affordable and available to extremely low-income households, whose incomes are at or below the poverty guideline or 30 percent of their area median income, the National Low Income Housing Coalition states.
Many of these households are severely cost burdened, spending more than half of their income on housing. These households are predicted to face unstable housing situations when families and individuals get sick and lose jobs. Currently, NLIHC estimates there is a shortage of more than 600,000 homes for such renters.
“I do not think Rochester has enough affordable housing stock,” Hunt-Uzelac says. “We’re seeing that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to house families that are in our shelter. And that’s kind of been a trend over the past few years. But it’s exponentially become harder with a pandemic. … I can’t say that I hold (landlords) accountable for being stringent with who they accept or accepted as tenants. But it’s incredibly difficult for families to regain housing.”
FPGROC looks for affordable and adequate housing for its families.
“We don’t want to put our families in substandard housing, and we want it to be affordable,” Hunt-Uzelac says. “It’s getting harder and harder to find either or both. So, I would say that’s a big gap.”
Miller believes housing is critical to creating positive experiences for the unsheltered. When the homeless were placed in hotels during the height of the pandemic, she says people were eager to return to the workforce.
“If they have positive experiences like that, it really helps to build them up and builds up their ego,” Miller says. “What we really would love to see are these empty hotels open up and bring in the homeless.”
When Hodge visited the homeless who were temporarily housed in hotels, he found they were happy and willing to talk.
“They had a real room and real space for themselves and no one challenging them on all the sorts of things they did before,” Hodge says. “They didn’t have people looking at them like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’”
That is among the reasons why the Rochester Homeless Union, VOCAL-NY, City Wide Tenant Union, and homeless residents of Rochester rallied in front of the Hotel Cadillac on Aug. 11.
Adler points to the emotional connection with the site at 45 Chestnut St. in downtown Rochester. It housed the homeless (roughly 50 to 100 people, by Adler’s estimates) until 2018, when they were evicted. The property was sold to DHD Ventures to be transformed into a high-end spot. Since then, the site has changed hands, going to developer Lou Giardino,who outlined a $16 million renovation into an 80-room luxury hotel in 2019. Now, Christa Construction owns the site. Officials at Christa did not respond to a call for comment.
“Yes, we want to make the city great again, but only financially? What about morally?” Hodge says. “The Cadillac is in the heart of downtown; it has such visibility. When people come to Rochester, the Cadillac could be a symbol saying, ‘We love everyone, whether you’re poor, middle class, rich, there is a place where you can belong here.’”
He serves as a mentor and confidante for the unhoused and notes that some people lived at the Cadillac for several decades.
“Literally what people need for basic human survival is shelter,” Adler says. “And in order to be able to thrive in society and your life, you need to have adequate and consistent housing.”
Preventing a disaster
The Rochester Homeless Union plans to continue to protest until they are heard, she says.
“We see (homelessness) isn’t happening because people are dumb,” Adler says. “(It’s) happening because there’s policies and systems in place that (are) not willing to actually provide basic needs and survival for people. And so, without the homeless union and without people protesting, these people are going to go unhoused because the people who are in positions of power are not making decisions that they could be, to be housing these people.”
Miller also would like to see action taken. She wants lawmakers to make life worthwhile for the poor.
“It takes courageous people to just say, ‘Look, we need this for the poor, and we’re going to get it for the poor,’” she says. “If they’re in politics, they can do a lot to shift the mood, shift the situation.”
When the homeless become desolate, they can turn to substance abuse and violence, which lends itself to a whole other crisis. As she looks ahead, Miller says that suburbanites bear a responsibility to reach out to the poor.
“There needs to be a lot of changes here in the thinking of our people in the suburbs; our politicians … can do a lot if they want to change the picture,” she says.
For Hodge, learning about and advocating for the poor has opened his eyes. He realizes it is a systemic problem that might be invisible to those who are homeless and those who aren’t.
“Rochester has such history,” he says. “Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman made it here. (Tubman) didn’t just stay in the north, she went back to help those left behind. That’s what we (in the unhoused community) have to do too.”