There's little that's more emblematic of severe poverty than homelessness. Like most medium-size and large cities, Rochester has emergency shelters for homeless adults, but the demand for beds and living space, especially for the chronically homeless, continues to outpace availability.
For the third year in a row, REACH Advocacy – Rochesterians Engaging in Action for the Chronically Homeless – will be raising money for a shelter for the coming winter, to address the overflow. The group needs to raise $78,000 quickly to find a home or other suitable building and have it ready to accept homeless adults by November 15, says the Rev. Peter Peters, the retired Episcopal priest who chairs REACH Advocacy.
"Last year we raised $60,000 within a very short deadline, so I think we can do it," Peters says.
(Donations can be made out to FLACE/REACH Advocacy and mailed to P.O. Box 10845, Rochester, NY 14610.)
The volunteer organization was formed in response to the city's closing of the homeless tent camps that developed in late 2014, says Peters. In 2015, REACH opened a home on Prince Street for the winter months, and last year it opened one on Ontario Street. The location for this year's winter shelter hasn't been identified, Peters says, but it will be similar to the previous two. People will have a clean bed to sleep in and a warm meal at night.
REACH Advocacy leaders had expected that the need for extra shelter beds would be eliminated once the new House of Mercy shelter was opened and operational. But House of Mercy's new facility and St. Joseph's House of Hospitality, the two shelters that work with the chronically homeless, are generally filled to capacity, says Peters. For instance, House of Mercy has an 82-bed occupancy, but the number of men and women seeking shelter consistently exceeds that limit, he says.
A survey conducted by the county in January 2016 found that nearly 70 people could not access a shelter, Peters says. But that's simply a one-time snapshot of shelter overcapacity, he says, not necessarily an accurate reflection of the severity of the chronic homelessness problem.
Kelly Finnigan, a social worker and director of operations at House of Mercy, says it's hard to come up with precise data when working with the chronically homeless. Some homeless people are guided into permanent housing – REACH Advocacy has found permanent housing for as many as 40 percent of the people who stayed in its winter shelters – but it's not clear how many remain there. Many have physical or mental disabilities and aren't able to live independently or hold a job, Finnigan says.
"That's because of a whole variety of reasons," says Finnigan. "Severe mental illnesses, severe drug and alcohol abuse – but it's more than that. Many have really bad rental histories because of their disease, and it's so hard to find them an apartment when they have two or three evictions on their record. It takes a lot of legwork."