Although it has been his new routine, Johnnie Watson didn’t go to church with his mother three Sundays ago. Instead, he was out the night before in blizzard-like conditions to help direct the unhoused toward warming stations.
“I was just too tired at the end of the day. Sorry, Mom,” he says with a chuckle. “I’ll be back though. I know if I stick around (at church) and keep going, things will turn out all right.”
Watson volunteers at the Center for Community Alternatives, an organization that provides resources for substance treatment, court advocacy, emergency housing, violence prevention and workforce readiness in Rochester, Syracuse and New York City. When he was experiencing homelessness and living in the shelter system, Watson found support and groups at the center that pulled him to a better place.
Recently, he managed to find an apartment that is covered by his Department of Social Services rental assistance. While it is in a neighborhood similar to the one that started his chaotic alcohol use and involvement in criminal activities, he mostly uses it as “a place to shower and sleep.”
Now, his days are filled with trying to improve his situation and help those who are still struggling, which is becoming increasingly important as Watson sees the situation worsening.
“It feels harder to get into shelters, to get the services you need,” Watson says. “It’s either you’re feeling ignored or being punished.”
Most recently, he has seen the inadequacies with weather emergency plans. As mild as this winter has been, the recent snowstorms, including the one preventing Watson from going to church, have weighed heavily on the unhoused community’s safety and security.
So far, March’s 14-inch snow accumulation is more than any month this year. The beginning of the month saw thousands lose power from a winter storm and there could be yearly high snowfall from the latest weather pattern.
Although bed capacity has increased in recent years and official numbers show a surplus of shelter spots, impacted people and workers on the ground say this flurry of winter activity has exposed systemic dysfunctions.
“That blizzard happened in Buffalo, but it very easily could have happened here. And we were not prepared either,” says Christopher Monk, organizer with the Democratic Socialists of America Rochester chapter and CORE recovery outreach coordinator at CCA.
The city’s emergency weather safety plan, Code Blue, is supposed to provide transportation, shelter and meals for people on the street when temperatures drop below 32 degrees. Code Blue runs from November 15 to March 15, meaning they were set to end yesterday.
During these recent high-snowfall events, the latest had wind gusts of 30 to 40 miles per hour at times, and more space and support were needed for the number of unhoused people requiring shelter. Organizations such as the Rochester Alliance for Housing Accountability set up cots in their offices, volunteers like Watson sought out those in need, and advocates like Monk coordinated outreach efforts.
Having to go above and beyond to provide services for the unhoused community is something that frustrates advocates as they continue to call for enhanced Code Blue measures. While City Councilmember Kim Smith is among a few local officials who have asked for expanded government involvement, workers on the ground want to see more.
“We need to talk to (Mayor) Malik Evans and (County Executive) Adam Bello and tell them ‘This is your responsibility. You’re going to bed feeling comfortable while there are people who need your help,’” says Sister Grace Miller, former executive director and founder of the House of Mercy.
“It’s something that seems like it should be a county job. Like, should it really fall on me to be the one coordinating these things?” says Monk of his efforts at coordinating transportation to shelters during Code Blue events. “If you get accepted to a shelter, no one’s giving you a ride there. If you know where a warming shelter is, you got to get there. But it’s in a blizzard.”
During Code Blue events, the county’s plan includes a warming shelter set up through Open Door Mission, phone lines for individuals seeking shelter and outreach teams. During cold weather, the city of Rochester has extended hours on extremely cold days, opening centers at 8:00 a.m. instead of 2:00 p.m.
Transportation and lack of access throughout the city remain the biggest concerns when it comes to enhancing code. During blizzard conditions, walking an hour across the city to the one available warming station is a hefty task. On a social and psychological level, an individual may want to avoid certain areas of the city to prevent a triggering trauma or addiction.
Monk favors the idea of expanding the capacity of warming stations to include facilities already across the city and funded with public money, such as libraries and recreation centers. He says organizations have the volunteers, supplies and willpower, but lack the physical space.
Currently, both libraries and R-centers close in the evenings, the time people seeking shelter need it the most.
“We need 24 hours, not having places open until 9:00 at night and then (you have to) leave. 9:00 is when (unhoused people) need to be let in, not let out,” Miller says. “Rochester has the capabilities to create a system that works. It’s a matter of effort, care, compassion and interest that we need.”
Denise Read, deputy commissioner with the Department of Human Services, agrees that more services are needed and that she has the ability to fund more. However, during periods of procurement for emergency shelters, she says few organizations have stood up to claim it.
“(With Code Blue), it’s not an issue of funding. It’s really an issue of available providers. Open Door Mission is our only warming center because they are the only ones who responded. We didn’t have any other person offering us Code Blue space,” Read said at a recent housing forum.
In addition, Person Centered Housing Options is the only outreach program contracted by the county government at this time.
“If you think I need to buy something, sell it to me and I’ll buy it. Now there are some regulations because I am the government; it’s a bureaucracy. But we’re working at making things low barrier,” Read said.
She also stressed the amount of time it takes for action. For example,after years of requesting an increase in Section 8 housing vouchers, the Rochester Housing Authority finally received additional vouchers due to the COVID-19 crisis.
However, several advocates say that accepting that funding ultimately limits an organization’s effectiveness and that lengthy procedures are a convenient excuse for inaction.
“It’s obvious those feet move quick when you got to kick some homeless people out of somewhere,” Monk says. “They say, ‘It takes this and that procedure to start up a shelter.’ We did it over a weekend with shoestrings and duct tape.”
“We’re successful because we’re doing it without a profit motive, first and foremost. And we’re doing it without the bureaucratic overhead that comes with trying to wear the name of an organization,” he continues. “Things become very possible when you’re doing it out of a genuine compassion for people.”
Refusal of services
Separate from the winter weather issue is the capacity of shelters in the area. Comparing the 2022 Housing Inventory Count with the Point-in-Time Count from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, there was a surplus of 79 beds last year in the Continuum of Care (the local planning body that coordinates housing and services funding for homeless families and individuals) for Rochester.
Even with that surplus of beds, there were many people unhoused or living in encampments last year and capacity was stretched to a breaking point during that snowy weekend. Impacted individuals and advocates say those numbers (which are categorized as estimates) are misleading as to the actual scope of the issue.
For example, official PIT numbers for 2022 indicate that there were five people counted who fell into a transgender, nonbinary or gender-questioning category. Monk asserts it is a much different picture in reality.
“Young trans people usually end up on the street because their parents kicked them out,” he says, adding that nearly a third of all transgender youth will experience housing instability or homelessness in their lifetime.
A possible conclusion for this contradictory nature might be that people refuse service, one that has been repeated by national and local officials many times.
“(The county) has offered people options both in terms of drug treatment and in terms of shelter,” said Linda Kingsley, corporation counsel for the city of Rochester, after a recent sweep of an encampment at Loomis Street. “And unfortunately some of the folks who live there will not accept any of those options.”
Advocates counter that “refusing service” is much too simple of a narrative and flattens the experiences of unhoused people, ignoring cycles of trauma and retraumatization.
“The majority of shelters are run by religious institutions, which means if you’re nonbinary or gay, it’s not really a comfortable place for you. And most places sort by male/female,” Monk says. “Navigating the DSS system too (because of the need for a birth certificate), you’re constantly “dead named” (referred to as your former given name) and misgendered throughout the day. That’s trauma, that’s PTSD.”
“When you look at a homeless encampment, there is an overrepresented group of certain demographics. Immigrants, people suffering from substance abuse disorders, people with mental health issues, trans people. These are people the system failed,” he adds.
Recently, safety issues at shelters have caused trust to erode as well. Last year, a stabbing incident at the House of Mercy left one resident dead and another gravely injured. Reestablishing lost confidence takes time but needs to be done from an individual-centered perspective, Watson says.
Similarly, unhoused people are also likely to suffer from mental health issues that can be exacerbated from the experience of homelessness. Relying on medically necessary treatment from the Department of Human Services, which can often feel uncaring or antagonistic, can further add to that trauma and cause people to want to avoid the system altogether.
In his own experience, Watson has not found mutual respect when dealing with the shelter system. While recent positive anecdotes from people in shelters that he volunteers with are encouraging, he still sees negative attitudes on a systemic level.
“I have substance abuse issues, I have mental health issues, so my emotions might be all over the place because I’m going through it, you know? And I’m telling you about it so you can better help me. But if they misinterpret that frustration and emotion with me being unwilling, that can wreck your chances,” Watson says, echoing the anecdotal experiences of other impacted people. “All I’m asking is for you to do your job. They have so much power right there over how my life progresses and they might not know it.”
“It’s almost like they expect a person to act the way they want them to without making accommodations,” says Miller of some of her experiences. “You need to take the extra step, sit down and talk with them, let them know they are loved and wanted.”
Another factor that could explain the gap between PIT and HIC numbers is shelter sanctions. To be sanctioned by DHS means an individual is ejected from a shelter, typically as a “durational sanction,” or for a duration of time. Breaking a shelter rule, missing an appointment, not maintaining an employment or apartment search, or failing to attend mandated drug or alcohol recovery services are usual reasons for sanctioning.
A 2018 study into sanctions by Harry Murray, professor emeritus of sociology at Nazareth College, found that Monroe County had greater rates when compared with other large urban counties. From 2005 to 2017, the area went from being tied for the lowest percent of public assistance recipients under sanction (3.28 percent) to the highest (4.94 percent).
Updating the study’s results with Murray’s methodology reveals that all state county sanction rates fell during the COVID-19 pandemic. Monroe County held the top spot for percentage of recipients sanctioned from 2017 until last year, falling to below 2 percent.
However, even with the pandemic-related fall, the area still remains the highest when filtered further for durational sanctions falling within the “drugs and alcohol” category. From 2005 to 2022, PA recipients were sanctioned based on those conditions at more than double the rate of the next highest Continuum of Care.
The study also found that Monroe County also denies PA requests at a high rate. From 2005 to 2022, denial rates never dropped below 69 percent. Over that period, it was consistently in the top three of denial rates across the state and the top county when compared to four large urban counties.
Officials from the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance and Monroe County criticized Murray’s report at the time, claiming sanction cases were too complex to summarize this way and that the county could be following state-mandated sanctions “to the letter of the law” compared to other areas. Murray fired back at this criticism stating there is no regulation so specific to be applied to all real world cases.
Chaotic alcohol use was one of the factors that led Watson to become housing insecure and then homeless. In recovery himself, he knows how crucial shelter and services can be for someone with substance use disorder and what it can mean to be cut off from them.
Ironically, when Watson was sanctioned, it came after he had joined group sessions of his own accord. The sanction came after he spent time outside the shelter with someone who had been accused of stealing another resident’s property, something Watson was unaware of at the time. While he eventually found emergency shelter at another location, the entire process was confusing and demoralizing, especially for someone attempting to improve their situation.
“I had to go through that whole circus again, of going through all that paperwork again. It was so frustrating and demoralizing,” Watson says. “I was already in (a recovery) group. I put myself in there because I knew I needed something to do during the day. I needed something to stop myself.”
Although Miller and her longtime collaborator Sister Rita Lewis were let go from The House of Mercy last year, they continue to do outreach to unsheltered individuals on their own.
Recently, Miller recalls, they encountered two men who were without shelter. After some time, they were able to find a place that would accept one but not the other man as he had been sanctioned earlier that month.
“We stayed with him in the car, you know, just to keep warm, until about 2 a.m.,” Miller says. “He found a relative to finally stay with, but all of those who don’t, you’re forcing them out into the cold. How long is it before we find someone who was turned away (from shelter) and froze to death in the night?”
“I would do away with sanctions. I would talk with the person and find a way forward, because once you show you’re willing to work with someone, they respond to that,” she continues.
Ultimately, Miller does believe that the city can improve the situation for those in need.
“We have a long way to go, but Rochester has the capabilities to change,” she says.
Read similarly acknowledges that the situation has a lot of room for improvement. She is encouraged by recent shelter openings, mentioning Eaglestar Housing and Project HAVEN by name as locations with low entry barriers.
Low entry barriers are an element of a “housing first model,” which advocates say is the only certain way to improve the situation. At base level, it refers to a system that prioritizes providing permanent housing above issues of employment, substance abuse disorder or other complications.
The area has made efforts to create housing-first options, but activists note a tendency to use the term without fulfilling its promises.
“The situation that’s being described as ‘housing first’ here, it’s actually ‘wait first,’” says Monk. “It’s inadequate and not going to the people who need it most right now.”
Until the time that housing is no longer an issue, volunteers like Watson say they will continue to go out on the coldest nights to help people without shelter.
“I want to be out there again, because when I needed it, there was someone out there for me. And they’re still helping me to this day—we’re all helping each other,” he says. “Without them, I don’t know where I’d be today.”
Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].