When the deadliest blizzard in Buffalo’s history bombarded Western New York three weeks ago, Rochester escaped mass tragedy. Still, homeless advocates say it was too close of a call.
Though snow largely missed Rochester last month, frigid temperatures and pounding wind still posed significant risks to the homeless and people without heat. On any given night, 748 people experience homelessness in Monroe County, including 178 children, according to Partners Ending Homelessness.
In an emergency move to address the risks posed to that population, the city converted the David F. Gantt R-Center into a warming center on Dec. 23 and 24, providing some support to local shelters like Open Door Mission and House of Mercy that regularly provide warmth during the cold season.
The Rochester Housing Accountability Coalition came together last week with City Councilmember Kim Smith and Monroe County Legislator Carolyn Hoffman to demand that the city and county proactively enhance their Code Blue policies.
Code Blue is a designation used by homeless support groups to cue the adoption of support measures amid dangerously low temperatures, like broader hours for warming centers or the opening of additional facilities.
“The crisis in Buffalo showed that we are not prepared for a severe weather emergency like we saw there where their infrastructure was overwhelmed,” Hoffman said from the steps of the Monroe County Government Office. “We have folks that are vulnerable in this community that would not survive a crisis like that. We have to put plans in place for a crisis like that that takes into consideration our homeless population, our folks with disabilities, our elderly, and those who are most impoverished.”
The advocates called on local governments to:
■ expand 24-hour warming centers and provide transportation to them during cold weather events;
■ make downtown hotels available as overflow spaces if warming shelters reach capacity;
■ coordinate with organizations working on the ground to carry out street outreach ahead of cold weather event; and
■ staff warming centers with people trained to handle people dealing with mental health and substance issues.
In less-specific terms, the activists were also frustrated that much of the work of caring for the homeless falls on under-resourced private organizations, staffed either mostly or entirely by volunteers, rather than the government.
Stephanie Forrester of Recovery All Ways highlighted how, in her view and experience, government bureaucracies have worsened the problem of homelessness. She pointed to how missing appointments with the Monroe County Department of Social Services can restrict people from accessing housing and food benefits, leaving private organizations to help those who fall through the cracks.
“I’m not sure if any of you have experienced homelessness, but let me tell you, waking up in a tent or abandoned house with no phone, no way of telling the time, into the instant chaos of trying to figure these things out on top of attempting to get to an appointment across town with no means of getting there is a setup for failure,” she said.
“Recovery All Ways, alongside other grassroots organizations, are getting people off the streets that have either been banned from existing programs, or people that cannot be assisted properly due to the inadequate staffing—meaning they don’t have trained professional staff on 24/7 that can work with those battling mental health issues or severe substance use disorder.”
Echoing calls for the government to up its role, and bringing with her an appeal to faith, was Sister Grace Miller, the founder and former executive director of House of Mercy.
“We are pleading with you, city and county officials, to show a caring heart for the homeless, to provide beds for them,” she said. “Let the homeless know that we and the city and the county care for them.
“The homeless are not strangers to us,” she added. “They are our brothers and our sisters in Christ, and warming centers are not the answer. Our homeless need beds, food, and love and care, and this is not too much to ask the city.”
Justin O’Connor is a Rochester Beacon intern and a student at the University of Rochester. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.