Year after year, homeless shelters in Rochester face a dilemma. On many days, they see more people who need shelter than they can accommodate. That leaves them with two choices: turn the people away or methodically search for available beds in other shelters.
Typically, they do the latter, and usually to little success.
Normally, this goes on during the winter as nighttime temperatures dip to the point where it's unbearable – and unsafe – to spend the night under overpasses or in tents pitched on empty lots.
But this year, several shelters are already overwhelmed. Night after night, more people arrive seeking beds than the facilities can safely house.
St. Joseph's House of Hospitality on South Avenue opened for the season on October 8, and for all but a couple of nights since, it's faced overflow, says Pat Dupont, one of the Catholic Workers who lives and works at the shelter.
Officially, the shelter has 19 beds but most nights, roughly 30 people have shown up at its doors, Dupont says. And that doesn't include the 25 people workers have found sleeping outside when they checked areas within a mile of St. Joe's, he says.
Dimitri House, located a few neighborhoods to the northeast, just opened for the season on Sunday. But people had already started reaching out to the seven-bed shelter before then.
"I sit on a number of committees here in Rochester, and I can tell you that a multitude of the shelters that are open have been full already, and we haven't even started the cold weather," says Laurie Jones-Prizel, executive director for Dimitri House.
And with forecasters predicting a brutal winter ahead, shelter workers and administrators are worried about these early overflows.
"I do think that it might end up getting worse because they've started so high," says Annie Horras, also a Catholic Worker at St. Joe's.
Nobody knows exactly how many homeless people need shelter or aren't seeking it. A survey led by the Monroe County Department of Human Services on a single day this past January identified 69 people without shelter. But shelter workers and directors say the number is probably higher.
None of the shelter workers and operators know why they're seeing so many people in need right now. There are, however, some likely contributing factors.
They know that the problem is most pronounced among the hard-to-serve, chronically homeless. Many of these people have severe mental-illness or chemical-dependency problems and may not even be capable of complying with the social services requirements, the shelter workers say. And many have been sanctioned, which means they're cut from public assistance for anywhere from 30 days to roughly 6 months and shelters can't get reimbursed by the county for housing them.
Public assistance recipients can be sanctioned for something as simple as missing an appointment or failing to submit paperwork.
St. Joe's, House of Mercy, Open Door Mission, and Dimitri House are generally the only shelters that will work with sanctioned homeless people. And a high number of Monroe County's homeless currently have sanctions against them, Jones-Prizel says.
Dimitri House also been approached by a few people from Puerto Rico who came here seeking refuge after Hurricane Maria, Jones-Prizel says.
Ryan Acuff, a Catholic Worker at St. Joe's, says some groups plan to start pressing the state to overhaul its laws related to public-assistance sanctions. Acuff says the state should move away from the practice of sanctioning people for defined periods of time and instead should allow them to receive benefits again once they comply with requirements.
Acuff says that Monroe County should also change how it funds shelters. The county currently pays shelters for every unsanctioned person they take in each night, while Onondaga County just gives shelters a broad, annual allocation, he says. Onondaga's approach allows shelters to take in whoever they need to, without worrying about whether a person comes with money behind them, Acuff says. (St. Joe's takes no government funding.)
"You're penalizing people for having a disability, whether it's mental illness or another form of disability," Acuff says. "It should be the opposite. People who have severe mental illness or disabilities should be given more care and more compassion and more services, not less. But in the current system, they're given less services."
Acuff also sees housing as a contributing issue since, generally, a substantial number of people get tossed out of their apartments each year. Some are evicted, some get kicked out of month-to-month apartments for complaining about conditions, and others can't afford rent increases, he says. Some of those people show up at shelters if they can't find a new place to live, he says.
Rochester also lacks truly affordable housing for low-income residents, which can keep some people on the streets, he says.
It's the hard-to-serve and chronically homeless, however, who struggle most with finding shelter. REACH Advocacy formed in 2015 to tackle the bed shortage faced by that population. The prior winter, the city bulldozed Sanctuary Village, a tent community established to respond to the bed-shortage crisis and to draw attention to it.
REACH ran temporary emergency shelters the following winter and again last winter. The first year, it placed about 50 people in permanent housing; the second, somewhere around 40.
"The long-range answer is for us to get more permanent housing for the homeless," says Sarah Peters, REACH Advocacy's secretary. "And there aren't a lot of people that want to rent apartments to people who could potentially still have some kind of mental health issue or a drug issue."
The group wants to buy some buildings – it hopes at low prices – and convert them into permanent apartments for the chronically homeless. And it wants to bring in social workers and volunteers to support the residents and help them get access to services they need.
The group planned to put its energy and resources toward that vision in lieu of opening a shelter this year. But when it saw the problems other providers were facing, it changed course.
REACH is fixing up a property on Union Street for use as a 21-bed shelter. It had hoped to open it on November 15, but it's still working to get building ready and needs money to operate the place. The group isn't receiving any city or county funding and is trying to raise somewhere north of $80,000 for the project. (Information on what REACH needs, and how to donate, is available under the "Donations" tab at reachadvocacy.org.)
The property is owned by Dimitri House and has been unoccupied for several years; REACH is renting it for the season. Dimitri House has plans to eventually convert the building into six permanent apartments for the chronically homeless, Jones-Prizel says.
The Catholic Workers at St. Joe's have also appealed to local churches – Catholic parishes in particular – to open their doors to people who need shelter.
On Sunday, October 29, St. Joe's was again over capacity. Horras and Dupont, as well as two homeless guests who volunteered, set up tents on the lawn of St. Mary's church, just across the street from Washington Square Park. They called it Pope Francis Field Hospital, a reference to the pope's remarks that he sees Catholic churches as a field hospital after battle. That means that the churches should not just engage in moral debates, but open their doors to people who need help and healing, he said.
So far, the St. Joe's workers have only had one organization step up, and it asked to remain anonymous.
"It's a sin that our society is allowing people to remain homeless and not have access to shelter," Dupont says. "So we're trying to challenge churches and citizens of the entire community to kind of wake up to this problem and to do something about it."