For Jacqueline Brooken, president of La Madonna Della Strada, a new Rochester organization formed to address issues of homelessness, the topic is deeply personal.
Both of Brooken’s children, now adults, were born at the House of Mercy. She worked there for over 30 years and credits the success she and others found at the shelter with its founder, Sister Grace Miller and her partner, Sister Rita Lewis.
“It’s the caring and the compassion,” says Brooken. “People who come (to shelters), they have broken hearts, they are people with mental problems, they are people whose families don’t support them. (Miller) made them feel love.”
Brooken’s admiration for Miller and Lewis’ long-time work is shared by other founding members of La Madonna Della Strada, which translates to “Our Lady of the Street.” They believe Miller’s perspective and philosophy of openness is unique and goes beyond what is currently being done for unhoused people in Rochester.
With cases of shelter sanctions still at a high level and evictions beginning to rise to pre-COVID pandemic rates, members of La Madonna Della Strada announced Monday their intention to establish a center for temporary shelter, a soup kitchen, food pantry, and clothing closet. Their desire is for a large building with a capacity of at least 100 beds with support and proper supervision from paid staff.
“There are many (unhoused people) now who are scattered all across the city. We need to let them know that we care for them, that they are not forgotten,” Miller said at the announcement, which was held in front of the former Loomis Street encampment that now features a 11-foot fence. “These are the works of mercy. These are the works of La Madonna Della Strada.”
The six-month-old organization, whose 501 (c) (3) nonprofit status is still pending, still needs more support for this to happen, organizers say. Its current goal is $300,000 to afford a building in the 14605 ZIP code, which has a concentration of unhoused people.
Following a stabbing incident that left one resident dead and another in critical condition, Miller and Lewis were let go by the House of Mercy last September. They have continued to do outreach with the homeless community on their own since then and were honored by Rochester City Council earlier this year.
Miller indicated that the La Madonna Della Strada center would have a low barrier for services, something she believes is missing from the current shelter system in Rochester. In particular, she raised concerns about the high rates of sanctioning in the area.
Being sanctioned means an individual has been evicted from a shelter, typically for a period 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.
In 2022, about 2 percent of people receiving public assistance were sanctioned in Monroe County, which was relatively low for the area. Eight years ago, sanctions regularly hit as high as 5 percent. Still, the Rochester area ranked high in sanctions per capita when compared with other metro areas in New York.
“Sanctions need to be removed entirely. When you sanction someone, you are saying basically, the doors of these shelters are not open to them,” said Miller.
Similarly, members of La Madonna Della Strada say more shelter capacity and service outreach will be needed if eviction trends continue to rise as well. While eviction moratoriums were put in place several times during the COVID-19 pandemic, they were lifted in January 2022.
“Monroe County has the fourth-highest eviction rate in the state. Evictions have been shown to be connected to crises in violence and education,” said County Legislator Mercedes Vasquez-Simmons, who represents the neighborhood and spoke in support of the effort. “And to think that this is the very spot where an encampment was removed.”
In the northeast 14605 ZIP code, where La Madonna Bella Strada hopes to establish its center, there were 114 eviction filings in the first three months of 2023, lower than the 164 in that same period in 2019. However, on a per-capita basis the area still has one of the highest rates in Monroe County.
Using “Point-in-Time” values from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the number of unhoused people on any given night in 2022 was estimated to be 748, which is generally in line with pre-pandemic levels. Members of La Madonna Della Strada believe the true number is closer to 1,000.
“We know them and we support them. We know we’re not supposed to bring them down,” says Brooken. “And that’s why we’re doing this and why it’s needed.”
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].