Nonprofits providing services to the homeless are trying to block the city of Rochester from moving ahead with what they claim is a plan to clear residents from a Northeast Rochester encampment.
City officials have not confirmed that a sweep of the encampment, which sits on a Loomis Street city-owned lot off Joseph Avenue, is in the works. Rather than trying to roust the homeless, the city is kicking off an intensive drive to aid them, says Mayor Malik Evans
Two nonprofits, Recovery All Ways and the New York Recovery Alliance, argue in an Oct. 19 lawsuit filed in the federal Western District of New York’s Rochester Division that a sweep would scatter Loomis Street squatters to points unknown and make it harder for RAW and NYRA to provide services. The move would put those residents, many of whom are hobbled by substance abuse or mental illness, at even greater risk, the court action contends.
Naming Evans, city Corporation Counsel Linda Kingsley and Monroe County Department of Human Services commissioner Corinda Crossdale as defendants, the lawsuit takes the city and county to task. By not providing adequate services to the homeless, the city and county are violating state social service laws, the nonprofits claim.
Efforts to help
While not specifically addressing charges leveled in the lawsuit, Evans held a briefing two days after the suit was filed outlining what he described as the city’s ongoing “multipronged effort” to deal with homelessness. The city, which is not directly responsible for providing social services, is working closely with county officials in that effort, the mayor said.
Evans highlighted an effort the city kicked off in August at Peace Village, a West Side homeless encampment where the city directed $250,000 in federal COVID relief money to Person Centered Housing Options, a nonprofit that connects homeless individuals with drug treatment services, health care, meals and counseling, and works to find housing.
The city further plans to use its nearly $400,000 share of opioid lawsuit-settlement money to further such efforts at other locations. And, Evans added, it is working with a cohort of cities dealing with similar problems across the country to learn of and put into effect practices that are working elsewhere.
RAW and NYRA in their court complaint claim that in the city’s 2021 Loomis Street sweep, ousted residents “lost belongings and tents … that were saved only because Recovery All Ways bagged and stored them.”
Eventually, homeless persons returned to the Loomis Street lot, the brief continues, alleging that city officials notified the agencies in early September that they planned to clear the encampment again.
Toward the end of September RPD officers posted no-trespassing signs on the Loomis Street lot and police, who brought a small front-end loader with them, at that time threw some residents’ property into a dumpster, the court action states.
Six days after the lawsuit’s filing, no sweep of the Loomis Street encampment had yet occurred.
Asked if such a sweep is planned, the city’s director of communications, Barbara Pierce, responded: “The city has and will continue to reach out the homeless population wherever they may be.”
In the homelessness briefing, Evans described a citywide effort to map tent cities like Peace Village and the Loomis Street encampment, which, the mayor said, are scattered around the city. City and county officials would use the information to reach out to “the unhoused.” Some of the city’s homeless contingent came originally from surrounding suburbs to buy drugs and ended up as addicts living on city streets, he added.
Lack of beds
In the homeless outreach program, says Dana Miller, the city’s commissioner of housing and neighborhood development, the city is following a model called Housing First that looks to place homeless people into some kind of housing as first step to helping them cope with problems like mental illness or drug addiction that put them on the street.
“The residents of the (Loomis Street) encampment live there because there are no other options for them. Just as in many communities across the country, it is often the case in Monroe County that there are no beds in any of our homeless shelters because demand for the beds outstrips the available resources in the community,” RAW and NYRA contends in court papers.
Rochester Police Chief David Smith describes the RPD’s Sept. 30 visit to the Loomis Street encampment as part the city’s outreach push, an effort in which teams of officers working with mental health, housing, addiction and faith-based specialists are fanning out in Rochester’s downtown every other week to reach out to homeless individuals at various locations. In its first day last week, says Smith, the program made contact with 50 individuals and after several days it had provided housing opportunities to three individuals.
Describing the Loomis Street encampment as “not only the site of a homeless encampment but also the site of an open-air drug market and … of recent violence,” Smith portrays the RPD’s encounter with encampment residents not as a prelude to a sweep but as a visit by “our crisis intervention team alongside a multitude of our community partners.”
In the encounter, Smith says, the crisis intervention team “offered a number of resources to the residents there.” However, he adds, “we found the location to be dangerous and unsanitary and as a result of these conditions, we called our partners in the Department of Environmental Services who assisted in cleaning up dozens of used and discarded needles, who secured several abandoned structures and removed hundreds of pounds of garbage from the site.”
RAW and NYRA acknowledge the city’s outreach efforts at Loomis Street but describe the cleanup as an aggressive effort that caused some residents to abandon the encampment out of fear of a coming sweep and dismiss solutions the city’s teams offered as empty promises.
“Services offered to the residents … were illusory,” the nonprofits claim in court papers. “Residents were referred to the House of Mercy, which is currently closed. They were referred to the Open Door Mission which has no available beds. RPD officers said they could go to other agencies which do not provide housing, Helio Healthcare and Delphi Rise. Officials on the scene did not engage in conversation with the residents. They simply stood near them and described to outreach advocates the above-described illusory services.”
With 76 beds, the nonprofit House of Mercy is the city’s largest homeless shelter. While not allowing drug use on site, it historically has had relatively lenient policies toward mentally ill and drug-addicted residents. It has been closed since the spring in the wake of brutal attack in which a resident killed one fellow resident and critically injured another. House of Mercy officials expect to reopen the shelter’s doors Nov. 1.
In the meantime, the city is working to find suitable housing for homeless individuals, and some possibilities do exist, Miller says. As an example, he cites a recently opened 24-apartment development targeted for homeless individuals opened by the Open Door Mission. Lack of availability, adds Miller, is not the only bar to putting the homeless in stable housing.
“In many cases,” he says, “outreach may take months before people will accept services. There’s a matter of time it takes to build up trust. Our intent is housing first, but in many cases, people need to go into a shelter before they can move into permanent housing.”
In court papers, RAW and NYRA state that some drug addicts spurn shelters because the shelters have zero-tolerance drug and alcohol policies. They describe boons encampments like the Loomis Steet lot offer as “the ability of the residents to monitor each other during drug use, and to administer Narcan in the event of an overdose.
“The residents also watch over each other’s belongings and make sure they are not taken or disposed of. The residents are able to receive clean needles and supplies of Narcan and other basic street medicine from the case workers who support them. They also enjoy the socialization and stability the encampment provides them.”
A different take
Neighborhood residents and business owners in the city’s Northeast Quadrant have a different take, however, says Sherman Dickerson, president of the Joseph Avenue Business Association.
Over the 10 years in which he’s headed the business group, says Dickerson, “I’ve seen a transformation that has taken place. You have homeowners in the neighborhood. … The encampment, they’re just pooping on the people’s lawns. Needles are everywhere. It’s just disproportionately getting out of control.
“If this problem existed in Penfield, Fairport, Webster, one of those nice suburbs, it would have been over in 24 hours. It would have never gotten to this point—kids walking down the street, finding needles, stepping on needles.”
Adds Dickerson: “The Joseph Avenue Arts and Cultural Alliance owns the old synagogue where all of this is taking place. They’re paying people on a daily basis to come clean up needles, human feces. Our kids shouldn’t have to be subjected to this.”
Meanwhile, promises RPD chief Smith, “as we move forward in the winter, we plan to continue our outreach efforts in both downtown and Loomis Street as well as look to expand these services to other areas of the city. We will continue to do our part to keep the residents of our city safe.”