56 POST | Issue 4 March / April 2014
Senior Editor Mary Stone spent
some time with a handful of
homeless people in...
Issue 4 March / April 2014 | POST 57
Men, mainly, dressed in sweatshirts and coats soaked from rain,
carrying sleeping b...
58 POST | Issue 4 March / April 2014
homeless for eight years, the last two of which
have been in the parking garage.
Issue 4 March / April 2014 | POST 59
there’s addiction, yes. But for this girl it was
MS. Some people just find themselves...
60 POST | Issue 4 March/ April 2014
to stash them somewhere. I put them in the
shower, the bathroom. I would get admonishe...
Issue 4 March/April 2014 | POST 61
People who stay in garages and other
public places, Michel-Wynne says, are people
of 6

Price of Freedom

Published on: Mar 4, 2016

Transcripts - Price of Freedom

  • 1. 56 POST | Issue 4 March / April 2014 FREED O Senior Editor Mary Stone spent some time with a handful of homeless people in our city in an attempt to understand what they are going through. The truth she found was heartbreaking—and surprising. The Price Of by Mary Stone
  • 2. Issue 4 March / April 2014 | POST 57 Men, mainly, dressed in sweatshirts and coats soaked from rain, carrying sleeping bags or shopping bags, loiter in a stairwell on their way to the garage below. At the bottom of the stairs, my new friend Arleen Hodge, a Rochester documentarian photographer, prepares me for a reality I’m about to experience: homelessness. She comes to the Civic Center Parking Garage on Exchange Street often, in a rotation of a half a dozen other public city locations where people can go to escape the brunt of the elements. Originally, her visits were to document homelessness with her photography. Now, she says, they are more for company; for helping her put reality back into perspective. That process already is happening to me. My hands are cold. My neck too, I think, as I immediately chastise myself for a sensation—a reality—that is unrelenting for this subterranean community. I am not scared or intimidated, as I often am for interviews. Instead I am ashamed: of my weather-appropriate apparel, of the way I shiver when it’s not even December. Out of the wind and absorbed in conversation, I start to forget the cold. One of a precious few, out of a dozen and a half men there that night, is willing to tell me his story. Wolf is sitting on the curb of the garage a few yards from the entrance, with few belongings apart from a sleeping bag. People like him are scattered, alone or in groups of no more than four, along the perimeter of the garage—some in the dark recesses, others here in the light. Wolf goes by his last name, which also happens to denote his attitude, I’m told. Under the influence, Wolf reacts violently to confrontation of any sort, Arleen explains. It gets him into an average of six fights a week, he tells me. Sometimes, however, it’s unprovoked, when he’s sleeping, for example, and someone tries to steal his things. Theft is common, the men tell me. That’s why it doesn’t do any good to have anything new: boots, electronics, gear to protect them from the cold. Unless they can sleep on top of it, they will wake to find it gone. Wolf is 53, but he looks at least 70. He is gaunt, but hot-blooded and ready to disagree. I listen to his story, and think how it sounds romantic: a combination of John Updike and Jack Kerouac. Wolf tells me about a woman—Cora—who broke his heart. He was 42 then, and she was sleeping with his friend. The devastation, which still brings him to tears, set him on a vagabond life, a cross-country adventure, where he worked as a mechanic, a hardware salesman, a tow truck operator. He went wherever there was work, he says, until two DWIs within two weeks cost him his license and his job. He was in Baltimore at the time. His sister paid to bring him back to Western New York, where Wolf settled in Rochester. He has been O n a November night, in the stinging wind and slanted rain, hockey specta- tors file out of Blue Cross Arena and down Exchange Street bundled and huddled together for the walk to their cars and the eventual drive home. Underneath them, in the parking garage across the street, another group assembles. Jonathan Rutherford D OM Fred (left) and Joe (right) often prefer a winter night on the pavement in the County Civic Center parking garage to a bed in a local shelter for the freedom from authority it allows them.
  • 3. 58 POST | Issue 4 March / April 2014 homeless for eight years, the last two of which have been in the parking garage. As fearless as Wolf seems, even he admits it is dangerous. He often wakes to being kicked for nothing more than someone’s sick amusement. Hubert Wilkerson, a local activist for the homeless and shelter worker, says that kind of violence, after a hockey game, for example, is common in that neighborhood. “Some of the people coming from Blue Cross Arena go to kick some of the guys. Just get violent on them for no reason,”Wilkerson says. When I ask Wolf why he doesn’t sleep in a shelter, he says because of curfews—and bedbugs. He wasn’t alone. Four out of four men I spoke to cited bedbugs as their reason for sleeping in the garage instead of a shelter. Wilkerson, who is known at city shelters for placing people in showers and closets wherever there is space when no beds are left, says bedbugs are rampant, yes, but there are bigger problems shelters face. Bedbugs, as real as they are, he says, are just an excuse homeless people use. “When you go to the garage, a lot of those guys have mental health issues on the severe side. A lot of them are alcoholics. They really don’t like the shelter situation, which I can understand, because when I was homeless I didn’t like it either,” Wilkerson says. Wilkerson spent some time homeless after being shot in 2005 and losing one eye. He said it was due to a group of people and organizations that he was able to get back on his feet. Many homeless people want to come and go as they please, to do their drugs, if they want, he says. They don’t have to be sober to sleep in a parking garage. And for that independence they’re willing to brave violence, theft, the cold and more. “Bedbugs is an excuse. In a garage, you’re dealing with everything: there are rats running around, mice, lice, etc., etc. No!” Wilkerson says. “It’s to have their freedom.” Wolf says he is an alcoholic, but not exclusively. One of his main concerns, and the primary obstacle, he says, to getting back on his feet is a crack debt he still owes. He’s been paying it off in small installments from the $540 a month he receives from his pension and money he gets panhandling. “I struggle to survive every day, in every way I can. I panhandle. I get a sign. That’s how I get food,” he says. After he pays his debt, Wolf wants to move to Florida. Until then, he says, he survives the hardest moments with the odd phone call to his daughters. Both live in Colorado, and speak to him only when Wolf can get his hands on a phone. Hodge says connecting with people like Wolf has helped her in her own life. Hodge moved to Rochester from New York City. Looking to make a name for herself in photography, she sought a niche: documenting homelessness in Rochester. She recalls packing a wool blanket and finding a group of homeless people at an encampment by the railroad tracks. She gained their trust and they even more quickly gained hers. Hodge and others talk about the vulnerability of the people here. I realize it is because they are vulnerable that they are so immediately relatable, despite their very different stories. The state of suffering seems to bring their souls to the surface in a way that instantly is very beautiful but also in extreme contrast to the odor of excrement, urine and other harsh material reminders of their circumstances. Hodge, personally, was strengthened by her experience with the homeless. “I had a daughter who died. I know suffering. Or, I thought I did,” Hodge says. “I didn’t start healing until I stepped into the world of true suffering.” She recalls a night at the encampment, when a homeless woman in her 20s suffering from multiple sclerosis fell from her wheelchair trying to reach the top of the encampment. It took some time for Hodge or anyone else to notice. When they did, she was face down in the mud, her diaper full of excrement. In the years since then, the young woman has since found the help she needs through an assisted-living apartment on East Avenue, Hodge says. Her story turned out well, but that’s not usually the case, she says. “In this place, there’s mental illness; “PEOPLE THINK THIS IS THE LAST STOP, BUT IT’S NOT. YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE HERE FOR THAT. THE LAST STOP IS WHEN YOUR FAMILY DON’T WANT YOU NO MORE. THAT’S WHEN YOU’RE DOWN ON YOUR LUCK: WHEN THEY SAY, ‘FUCK IT. I’M DONE.’”
  • 4. Issue 4 March / April 2014 | POST 59 there’s addiction, yes. But for this girl it was MS. Some people just find themselves with a problem they weren’t prepared for. In her case, she needed help, and there was no one, no family who could deal. That’s the reality.” In the parking garage, everyone I speak to says that despite the bedbugs and the rules, ultimately it is their own choice not to be in a shelter, and they assume the consequences. A man named Ernie tells me this. “There is no reason to be hungry in Rochester. There is no reason to be homeless. It is a choice,” he says. Ernie is dressed nicely, in a plaid blue shirt, with an apparently warm jacket and boots. He tells me he has a phone with Internet, but he doesn’t have a place to live, and that’s his choice. As we are talking I notice a young man wearing a red hoodie. I noticed him during my conversation with Wolf swoop in briefly to find out what I was there for. He scooped up the box of sandwiches I brought and took them to his friends. When we make eye contact, he walks away in a loop, like he’s riding a bicycle. I sit down to talk to someone else Hodge said was willing to talk. He is lying partly in a wet sleeping bag, with his back leaning against the parking garage wall. Like Ernie, he says he accepts the choices he makes. His name is Elijah. No more than 25, his skin is smooth and perfectly poreless. He looks radiant. He speaks to me reluctantly, and without revealing any details about his personal story, he talks about Jesus. He tells me he is not worried; he is not afraid of anything. He grew up going to church. He has Jesus in his heart. He talks with a kind of pity about the people outside who appear not to have the same inner peace. When he realizes, however, that my recorder is taping our conversation, he becomes angry. He tells me I am exploiting him. Overcome with shame, I realize I had left my recorder on from the last interview. Before I realize, let alone explain, Elijah has shut down. He pulls his hoodie over his eyes and tightens the strings. I am dismissed. I make some stupid excuses and apologize. I feel like I’ve wounded an already wounded child. I turn around, a little dizzy from the conversation, and find Fred, who is more than willing to talk. Behind him, I notice, the teenager in the red hoodie, who presumably also is willing to talk—just not yet willing enough to overcome his fear. Fred tells me that the people in the garage, as different as they seem, are a community. “We help each other out. People share down here. Everybody’s in the same boat. It’s not like a club: It’s a family,” Fred says. He’s talking fast; he’s excited. Five or six people gather around us to listen. “We can sleep here until 6:00. I’m the first one up, so I make sure everyone gets up and out. People go, some of them go to St. Joseph’s to wash clothes, take a shower.” Surviving, especially in the cold months, requires a lot of work. The men tell me their days are full before they return here to sleep. “I tell people, ‘Don’t sleep like you’re on vacation because somebody’s going to come through here from outside,’” Fred says. It’s a hard life, but it’s not the worst there is, Fred says. “People think this is the last stop, but it’s not. You don’t have to be here for that. The last stop is when your family don’t want you no more. That’s when you’re down on your luck: When they say, ‘Fuck it. I’m done.’” Fred is talking excitedly when he notices one of the men behind us laughing at him. He shuts down for a moment, his face turns down, and I turn to glare at the old man they call Santa (for his white beard). Fred starts talking again but with more reserve. “They’ve got all of these empty buildings in the city. Why don’t they open them up to the homeless?” Fred asks. “The people who work there would do it to keep their bed. If they don’t work, they get kicked out. Half the people here get checks, and half of them drink it away, half of them smoke crack.” Let them work for their housing was his point. And apart from the insurance considerations, the idea seemed to me to make perfect sense. Wilkerson, the shelter employee I later spoke to, told me this is a solution he has longed for, and one he promotes constantly at city and church meetings. “I believe in housing first,” Wilkerson says, referring to a term in social services for moving people directly into their own apartment, instead of transitioning through various stages of housing. “We have more abandoned houses in this city than we do homeless people,” he says. “A lot of these people have talents. If you can allow sweat equity, allow these guys to rehabilitate, renovate these houses, rebuild them and start opening some of them up, we can start eliminating this problem.” The alternative, he says, is just recycling the same people. Wilkerson insists, from his experience helping the homeless, that independent housing allows people to bounce back faster. “I’m proof of that because I bounced back,” he says. Wilkerson helps supervise men at a wet house on South Avenue Located across from a soup kitchen and shelter, the wet house allows people who are still drug- or alcohol-dependent to stay in apartments at little to no cost. The house is a project launched this year by St. Mary’s Church, St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality and House of Mercy. Michael Boucher, a social worker at St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center—a medical and mental health center for people without insurance—says the idea of converting abandoned houses into housing for the homeless is brilliant. “(It) would need to be safe, obviously, but there are models from around the country that support this idea,” Boucher says. “I doubt that it would take a lot of capital to initiate. ‘Supervision’ becomes an issue, I think. I can’t see a lot of taxpayers being OK with wet houses (where people are allowed to go if they are not drug and alcohol free).” This has already been an issue with social services, Boucher says. For that reason people are required to answer questions about substances use and seek treatment in order to get public funds. “So for me the idea is a good one but complicated. (It) underscores the point, however, that in every major metropolitan area there is more housing than there are people—abandoned or otherwise,” Boucher says. “It is a lot like the issue of hunger: There is plenty of food worldwide to feed everyone. It is a matter of political will to make sure that it happens. “All that said,” he adds, “I do think that there are ways that the city could creatively use its abandoned housing stock for people who are homeless.” Something needs to happen, Wilkerson says, because there are too few beds at shelters to accommodate people. City shelters, bedbugs or not, he says, are full most winter nights. “Even when you call social services after- hours, they’ll tell you they’re full. They have no rooms to place anybody. I will say, ‘What do you want me to do with these people? They hang up on me,” Wilkerson says. “I try Jonathan Rutherford
  • 5. 60 POST | Issue 4 March/ April 2014 to stash them somewhere. I put them in the shower, the bathroom. I would get admonished by the shelters themselves. They tell me I can’t do this. I tell them, ‘These are human beings we’re talking about.’” Rochester already is emphasizing housing first among other aggressive approaches toward permanent housing, such as rapid rehousing and permanent supportive housing, following new goals initiated by the Federal Strategic Plan to End Homelessness and the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing Act. In response to new federal goals, the city commissioned a homeless needs study that included two national experts brought in to evaluate the effectiveness of Rochester’s response to homelessness. Carrie Michel-Wynne, director of housing at YWCA of Rochester and Monroe County, is on the steering committee for the Homeless Services Network, a group of 70 people that meets monthly to find better methods for easing homelessness. Wynne serves in various other organizations such as the Rochester/ Monroe County Continuum of Care advisory committee. She says she was encouraged by the study findings. “It is true that many of the shelters run at capacity but what is exciting is that our community has been working very diligently to alleviate the need for hotel placements (which is where homeless individuals are placed when shelters are full),” Michel-Wynne says. “First, it was noted that we have a very low street homeless problem compared to cities of similar size. We also do an excellent job at getting people out of a homeless situation when they are homeless,” she adds. “Our average length of stay is about 14-16 days whereas in some communities people stay homeless for a year or more.” By adjusting the prevailing philosophy, she says, the problem of hotel placements could be solved within Rochester’s existing shelter system. Those changes would include, for example, coordinated access, so that all shelters screen and prioritize people the same way, Michel-Wynne explains. “Individuals with minimal needs might only need short-term assistance,” she says. “We have a very dedicated task force, developed by the Rochester/Monroe County Homeless Continuum of Care team, and comprised of more than 20 agency providers, advocates and former consumers. All of our work is being steered by the recommendations of the experts that came to Rochester.” One measure, she says, is diversion. Helping people out financially in very targeted ways. An expert from Cleveland is slated to train local providers on the technique. “(Diversion) essentially means that we will use mediation techniques and minimal cash resources to keep an individual in their current living situation. For example, if a youth has run away from home, a trained counselor might bring the family together to identify solutions so the child can go home or to a safe relative. “Another example might be that a person fell ill and as a result fell behind on rent. The landlord might be apt to evict the person but with good mediation and short-term cash assistance, we may be able to convince the landlord to keep the tenant.” “THEY’VE GOT ALL OF THESE EMPTY BUILDINGS IN THE CITY. WHY DON’T THEY OPEN THEM UP TO THE HOMELESS?” “I TRY TO ENCOURAGE PEOPLE EVERYWHERE FOR IDEAS AND SUPPORT BECAUSE I WAS BORN IN 1954, AND ROCHESTER WAS A HIGH-POVERTY CITY THEN, AND TODAY IT’S STILL IN THE TOP 10.” Michael Hanlon Local homeless activist and shelter worker, Hubert Wilkerson.
  • 6. Issue 4 March/April 2014 | POST 61 People who stay in garages and other public places, Michel-Wynne says, are people who don’t want to deal with rules. Federal legislation requires some screening and qualification before they can receive benefits. “Significant outreach and planning has gone into addressing the needs of this population,” Michel-Wynne says. “We have prioritized shelter plus vouchers for this population and some have taken advantage of it. Others refuse to go through the process and we have even found ways to minimize the qualification process.” Shelters, she says, have to have rules to protect people. Even so, many shelters are willing to accommodate people under the influence or people who have unaddressed mental health problems, so long as they can keep the rest of the population safe. Michel-Wynne says using abandoned houses to house people presents code violations. In many cases, they are unsafe for people to renovate. Plus, she says, renovating a house requires planning, commitment and engagement, which generally are difficult for the homeless population. “The individuals that refuse to go to organizations are often those that are not likely to commit to fixing up a home. Most of these folks have a difficult time with relationships. Putting a few people in an abandoned home and expecting them to work together to restore the home is highly unlikely,” she says. Ideally, there should be wet houses, Michel-Wynne says, but agencies won’t take the risk for the liability it represents. However, she says, some new affordable- housing projects are developing an open- air concept. She says: “Individuals with significant risk factors can go into housing but still have the option of sleeping outside if they want. The design includes a safe outdoor spot for people to sleep if they so choose.” Wilkerson, however, is less optimistic than Michel-Wynne but still hopeful. He says, “I think this is my calling, to work with the homeless to work with mental illness, because I have mental health issues myself. I think this is where I should be. I try to encourage people everywhere for ideas and support because I was born in 1954, and Rochester was a high-poverty city then, and today it’s still in the top 10.” This is what I call a one-horse town. You can walk the length of it in a couple of hours, and it’s still in poverty. They have administration after administration that come out with these 10-year, 15-year plans. We need immediate help. We need plans for today. Indeed. In December, a report found Rochester to be the fifth poorest city in the nation, according to the Rochester Area Community Foundation and ACT Rochester The ranking was against the 75 largest U.S. metropolitan areas. Among comparably sized cities, Rochester ranks second, mainly for its extreme concentration of poverty within the city. It infuriates Wilkerson, who advises people who want to help financially to give to shelters directly. The House of Mercy, for example, he says, is particularly dedicated to the homeless. And of course, he says, people should give money to the people who need it, not necessary some middle man who is going to distribute it for them. Clothes, for example, often get sold for funds that get distributed to various programs. People who take their clothes to the Salvation Army, he says, don’t always realize that homeless people have to buy them in order to wear those donations. Wilkerson says, if people want homeless people to get their clothes for free, it’s generally better to donate to churches instead. At the parking garage, food is appreciated and blankets and pillows too. Leaving there, Red hoodie circled back. The only thing he managed to say the whole night was to ask if I had any books for him. I told him I wish I had. Walking up the stairs and out to my car, I wasn’t cold at all, but I didn’t realize it at the time. I was too dazzled by the soulful beauty downstairs. The rawness of their circumstances evoked such an immediate connection—a recalibration of my own view of the world—that I didn’t seem to feel anything but happiness. In my mind, on the drive home I saw colors like jewels. It wasn’t until later, warming up by the radiator and writing my notes, that I made the connection with the colors I saw, as I wrote their names: Wolf, Ernie, Elijah, Fred, and Red. For the sake of privacy, the full names of the homeless men in this story were not included. Data from the Homeless Management Information System, which tracks the prevalence of homelessness in Rochester and Monroe County, showed that there were 1,161 single homeless men and 693 homeless women here in 2011, and only half as many available beds or housing units. Total, there were 1,854 homeless single men and women three years ago, and 998 places for them to sleep. For families, there was slightly more availability, according to the same 2011 statistics. That year, there were 640 homeless families with children in 2011 who had some 524 places to stay in Rochester (including emergency housing, transitional and permanent supportive housing). Jonathan Rutherford NUMBERS

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