ROCHESTER — A committee has formed to find temporary shelter for a group of difficult-to-place homeless people before winter sets in.
The committee was created after more than 80 community representatives met Sept. 30 at Downtown United Presbyterian Church to discuss options for helping this group of homeless people who are difficult to place in existing shelters due to mental illness or substance abuse. The discussion, led by Sister of Mercy Grace Miller and Kelly Finnigan from the House of Mercy, generated several possible solutions to the problem.
To secure permanent housing for the homeless, the House of Mercy is in the process of closing on the purchase of a building at 285 Ormond St. near downtown Rochester, Sister Miller noted. But the 12,000-square-foot building won’t be ready until next year, as extensive renovations are necessary, she added.
In the meantime, a temporary shelter operating 24 hours per day, seven days per week soon will be needed for a group that averaged 60 to 70 people per night last year, Finnigan said. These individuals were living in an encampment under the Susan B. Anthony-Frederick Douglass Bridge last winter until moving to Sanctuary Village on Canal Street, explained Sister Miller. The city closed the doors on Sanctuary Village in April, but city officials continue to work with the House of Mercy to find a location for this winter for these people, who also had stayed in the Civic Center Garage during cold months. County officials closed off that option in 2014.
"We need the community to make this happen," Sister Miller said of finding housing for the homeless. "Miracles do happen."
This year, Sister Miller decided to take a proactive approach by engaging area churches, asking them to work together to find a single, temporary location so that people would not be forced to move from place to place. Once a location has been secured, the House of Mercy as well as the churches or groups that join the effort can work together on planning how to reach out to the community to provide what the people will need there, she said. An ideal space would measure about 5,000 square feet, Finnigan added.
"This is a good group," Thomas C. Greiner Jr., an attorney who works in campus ministry at McQuaid Jesuit High School, said of the people gathered at the Sept. 30 meeting. "There’s a lot of energy."
Following the meeting, Sister Miller said she plans to move quickly to meet with the new committee.
"We have to keep the momentum going," she said. "We can’t relax."
One option raised during the meeting by Harry Murray, a professor at Nazareth College, was to open two locations, one of them being just for homeless women, since that group at Sanctuary Village was small. Finnigan said having two shelters also would address the privacy challenges faced at the Canal Street building, where areas for men and women were separated only by a curtain.
"That wasn’t conducive to the safety of women," he said.
If churches — which were vital in the success of Sanctuary Village last winter — had space for a small group of women this winter, that would address housing and safety issues, he added.
At Sanctuary Village, church members donated food, personal hygiene kits, mattresses, sleeping bags and even provided transportation for people to be taken to showering facilities, as the Canal Street space did not have indoor plumbing. Several area foundations — including Farash Foundation and Rochester Realtors Charitable Foundation — also provided donations of $12,000 and $15,000 for operational costs. Buckingham Properties, which owns the building, did not charge the House of Mercy for the space, Finnigan said.
Carole Hoffman volunteered every week Sanctuary Village was open. For her, the work was personal. Her brother, who had been a junior at the University of Rochester before he was drafted into the Vietnam War, returned from duty as a different person. He lived on the streets and died five years ago, she said.
"This is the least I can do to give back," said Hoffman, who attends First Universalist Church in Rochester. "I can see how vulnerable the people are."
But at Sanctuary Village she also discovered people who were so warm and friendly that she began to think of it as "a home away from home."
The people who stayed there last winter were a family, said John Herrmann, who also volunteered at Sanctuary Village every day and said he will do so again at the next temporary shelter. He and his wife, Rozanne, are parishioners at St. Charles Borremeo Church in Greece.
"They were good people," he said. "I never felt closer to God."
EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information, visit houseofmercyrochester.org or send an e-mail to Kelly Finnigan at email@example.com.