The unusually mild winter has allowed Monroe County, meaning both the community and the government, to dodge a serious, ongoing problem regarding a hard-to-serve segment of the area's homeless population.
When the temperature drops below a certain point, homeless people need to get indoors to stay safe; the National Coalition for the Homeless says that hypothermia can set in at temperatures as warm as 50 degrees.
But some of the chronically homeless might not seek housing for several reasons, advocates say, ranging from fear to mental illness.
And others may be under temporary sanction by the county Department of Human Services. When social service recipients are sanctioned, typically for not reporting to a caseworker or failing to comply with one requirement or another, they can't get any sort of county benefit, including housing assistance. Sanctions often last from 30 days to 180 days.
Workers from the House of Mercy and St. Joseph's House of Hospitality, two shelters that regularly work with the hard-to-serve homeless, say that they hoped that a recent order from Governor Andrew Cuomo would help the population. But Monroe County hasn't made any noticeable changes to help the chronically homeless, they say, and so the population remains at risk in the cold. (A January 16 county survey found 86 homeless people who are not in shelters. It also noted that many shelters are over capacity.)
Cuomo's order is meant to keep homeless people from freezing to death. It says that Upstate counties have to give homeless people access to warm, safe, indoor spaces any time the temperature or wind chill drops below 32 degrees. Counties have to find ways to extend shelter hours and to identify homeless people and find shelter for them, including those who can't or won't find it on their own.
But James Murphy, a Catholic worker at St. Joe's, recalls a cold night in January when the shelter was over capacity and he needed help placing sanctioned people and called a designated county after-hours line. It didn't go well, he says.
"The order says everyone, and to me that means whether you're sanctioned or not," he says. "But they refused to place anyone anywhere. It seemed everyone on the phone had no idea what I was talking about."
The governor intended his executive order to expand shelter access, but what it has actually done is create a bit of a mess. Shelter operators aren't sure what they're supposed to do to comply, and county officials, who provide shelters with guidance or rules, are trying to figure it out, too. (Counties and providers across the state are in similar situations.)
No one knew that the Cuomo's order was coming, so there was no time to prepare or plan, says Laurie Jones-Prizel, executive director at Dimitri House. She initially "hit a state of panic," she says, when the order came down.
The seven-bed shelter worked to make room for more beds on some cold nights; staff and volunteers moved furniture so mattresses could be placed on the floor, even though they didn't know how the actions might impact, for example, the shelter's compliance with city building codes.
County officials have been gathering questions and concerns from local shelter operators and are trying to get clarification on the order from the state, county spokesperson William Napier said in a written response to an interview request.
Local shelters and county government work together under a Code Blue initiative developed and led by Open Door Mission. Open Door calls a Code Blue when forecasts predict temperatures below 19 degrees and other shelters respond by increasing outreach efforts and adding as many beds as they can.
Monroe County social workers are part of Code Blue, Napier says. And the county works with shelter providers, specifically the 17 with which it contracts, to try to find beds for people during a Code Blue event, he says.
But that still leaves the problem of the sanctioned homeless; without a plan from the county, the shelters don't know where to send them. Workers or volunteers end up calling around to other facilities looking for open slots. Often, it's the shelters that don't get county funding that end up housing the sanctioned homeless, at their own cost.
Jones-Prizel says that Dimitri House takes in some sanctioned individuals on cold nights, when shelters see higher demand for services. And that complicates efforts to provide emergency housing to people who need it, she says. Many people with sanctions would otherwise be able to use benefits to get into longer-term housing, she says. Instead, they occupy shelter beds that could go to people who have nowhere else to turn.
"The executive order is very clear where they say the county needs to have a plan to address every aspect, every segment of the homeless population," says Ryan Acuff, a social worker at House of Mercy. "That means people that are severely mentally ill, that means people that are struggling with addiction, that means people that have no money and are sanctioned, all the different situations."
The House of Mercy, St. Joe's, and others have repeatedly called on the county to develop a plan to support and house members of the hard-to-serve homeless population.
The issue came to a head in the winter of 2014 after the homeless who had been sheltering in the Civic Center Garage were thrown out. House of Mercy helped establish Sanctuary Village, a tent city under the Douglass-Anthony bridge to shelter the chronically homeless and to protest county policies. City of Rochester crews ultimately razed the site and fenced it off.
House of Mercy representatives say that the county should stop sanctioning homeless social service recipients. The county should move to a "housing first" approach, they say, where the homeless are placed in longer-term supportive housing and given services such as mental health counseling or chemical dependency treatment.
"The system needs much more compassion," says Sister Grace Miller, House of Mercy's founder and director.
County officials say that they routinely reach out to the hard-to-serve homeless, but many don't want the help.