EDITOR’S NOTE: The last names of some people interviewed for this story were withheld in order to protect their privacy.
To parishioners at Fairport’s Church of the Assumption, it was the perfect Christmas story.
The week before Christmas, they were able to shelter a young family with a newborn for a week, just as Mary and Joseph found shelter in a stable.
Instead of being homeless for the holidays, the young family was given a home in area houses of worship, with Christmas gifts, home-cooked food and entertainment during evenings.
Across town, in the Sanctuary House Shelter run by Rochester’s Catholic Family Center, Nydia Rosario and her teenage granddaughter had found temporary shelter after moving to the United States from Puerto Rico in October to escape a violent neighborhood. For the holidays, their host shelter had set aside a room full of gifts so that its guests could celebrate Christmas together with giving.
Both places stressed, though, that although the holidays are often met with an outpouring of generosity, the need for the area’s homeless lasts all year long.
RAIHN at Assumption
At Assumption on Dec. 20, chicken French was being dished up for Rochester-Area Interfaith Housing Network guests and volunteers alike.
A homelike atmosphere is one aim of volunteers. Up to 15 RAIHN guests live for a week in makeshift bedrooms at an area church before moving on the next week to another church. The guests they welcome into their churches are prescreened and referred to RAIHN by various social-services agencies.
Churches can host families or can support churches that are hosting families. Assumption is aided for two nights by volunteers from Mountain Rise United Church of Christ in Fairport.
One benefit of the program is that it can house an entire family together, said Deni Mack, Assumption’s pastoral associate who also is a member of RAIHN’s board of directors. For example, a 14-year-old-boy might not be able to stay with his mother and siblings in a shelter, but he could stay with them through the RAIHN program, she said.
RAIHN’s van picks up families at 7 a.m. to transport them to a day center, where guests can receive mail, catch a school bus, send e-mails, or hunt for housing or jobs. Families return to church at night for food, relaxation and rest.
Sue Owens, coordinator of Assumption’s team of volunteers, said they aim to be welcoming.
“Our mission is simple,” she said. “All we need to do is make a safe, friendly, comfortable place for people to be.”
The approach seems to be working, according to statistics from Mack. During the three years that the
RAIHN program has operated, 126 families have received shelter, including 265 children, many of whom are younger than 6. The program has successfully placed 96 percent of its graduates in permanent housing, and graduates include a licensed practical nurse and an entrepreneur.
RAIHN volunteers said they had various motivations for getting involved.
“I always seem to get much more out of it than I expected,” said Assumption parishioner Kathi Stolte.
Fellow parishioner Pat Costigan said she enjoys the work because she gets a chance to meet people she wouldn’t normally meet.
Bernadette Palermo, a parishioner of Church of the Resurrection in Fairport, said she and her husband, Michael, volunteered to help because they thought it would be a nice Advent project for their twin sons, Philip and Andrew.
“I think we take for granted all the things we have,” Michael Palermo said. “It’s important to show the kids there’s another side to this world.”
Mack said some reasons for the homelessness could include eviction, not being able to gather a security deposit, catastrophic illness, job loss or escaping an abusive situation.
“We don’t ask, and it doesn’t matter to us anyway,” Owens said. “Some guests share. Others are very quiet.”
One RAIHN guest in December was Luz, who recently turned 18 and has three children of her own to care for: a newborn baby, a 1-year-old and a 2-year-old. A native of Puerto Rico who recently moved to Rochester, Luz said she does not know where she and her boyfriend would be without RAIHN’s help.
Erica Vera, RAIHN’s director, has arranged for them to take English and parenting classes in addition to helping them with job and apartment searches, Luz said. She added that Vera has gone above and beyond the line of duty and even organized a baby shower for her.
"Erica is a good person," Luz told El Mensajero Católico. "She helps us with everything. … She treats people kindly."
Kindness also is something Nydia Rosario has been the recipient of during her stay at Catholic Family Center’s Sanctuary House, a shelter for homeless women.
“She is trying to start a new life with her granddaughter,” said Haydee Brown, who was translating for Rosario, who moved from Puerto Rico in October.
Now her 16-year-old granddaughter is a 4.0 student, she said proudly through Brown, a residence manager at Sanctuary House. The shelter’s primary goal for Rosario is to get her housing and to help her continue health care for a medical problem she has had.
“She’s a trooper, with the language barrier and not knowing the area,” Brown remarked.
Sanctuary House is located in a former Rochester hotel that now houses up to four dozen women and children all year long. On nights when there is a hypothermia watch, the shelter may house even more.
“We use every inch of space possible,” said Sue Barnes, fund development coordinator for Catholic Family Center’s Homeless and Housing Services, as she pointed out how the basement has been converted into a pantry and a supply-storage area.
If the shelter is full to capacity, it may house more than two dozen children, many of whom are younger than 4.
“They often have to take turns with high chairs,” Barnes said.
But Catholic Family Center, which operates two shelters for women and one for men, doesn’t just offer a place to sleep. Like RAIHN, staff at the shelters work to help guests on such issues as social-services and housing needs.
“My goal is to get them permanent housing,” said Tanika Jones, a Sanctuary House case manager who searches landlord resources and seeks referrals for other services guests need, such as mental-health services.
Jones said she often runs into people who are grateful for the help they received from Sanctuary House.
“They’ll say, ‘Thank you so much for all you guys did,’” she said.
One of the things the staff at Sanctuary House and the surrounding community do to make Christmas special is to gather gifts so families can pick out Christmas gifts for each other. Some of the women are shocked to find out that they will be having a Christmas after all, Barnes said.
“Most of the women are coming here with nothing,” she said. “When they leave a domestic-violence situation, they have a diaper on a child, and maybe a purse.”
Both places stressed, though, that although the holidays are often met with an outpouring of generosity, the need for the area’s homeless lasts all year long. Both organizations need clothes, food, furniture, supplies and volunteers.
“We love to have groups come in and serve dinner,” Barnes said.
One of the major needs is more options for affordable, permanent housing, she said, noting an increase in the numbers of working poor.
Mack said that service to others is a key component of Scripture.
“I personally feel a church has no right to even open its doors if it doesn’t do something like this,” she said. “You’ve got to put the Gospel into action.”
Includes reporting by Annette Jiménez.