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For the homeless, no shelter from the storm


I parked in the Civic Center garage every day for the better part of 30 years. I became accustomed to the homeless men and women who spent nights and frigid days in its darkest and dankest corners and stairwells.

They were sleeping or sleeping one off, often resting their heads on plastic bags that contained everything they owned. The garage people are "chronically homeless" — not runaways or folks who've been evicted or find themselves on the streets after a domestic argument, but people whose lives have been filled with trauma which they escape through drugs, alcohol, and mental illness.

Like most garage patrons, I learned to avert my eyes — sidestepping suffering that I could not relieve with a kind word or a few bucks.

Then last October, Monroe County evicted the homeless from the garage. The garage was no home, but as immediately became clear, the community had no other place for these folks to call home, either.

The 40 or so people who took shelter in the garage soon set up a tent city — "Sanctuary Village" — in Washington Square Park. The encampment later moved to South Avenue, under the expressway bridge.

The city, citing unsanitary conditions and the risk of fire, shut the village down days before Christmas and then, following a meeting between Mayor Lovely Warren and several homeless advocates, allowed it to reopen with the promise of better oversight. All parties promise to seek a permanent solution.

I have long said that the county's inability or refusal to find a safe haven for this admittedly hard-to-help population is a disgrace. Surely there is an answer. I still feel that way, but I can see it's complicated.

The city, county, and several service providers agreed in 2007 to a 10-year plan to end homelessness (they're not going to make that deadline), and several subsequent efforts have focused on delivering critical services to the various homeless populations. It's not as if no one cares.

Sister Grace Miller, director of the Hudson Avenue House of Mercy, has been an outspoken advocate for the homeless for nearly 30 years. The House of Mercy is the shelter of last resort, accepting people who won't accept the rules other shelters impose. Some are using drugs or alcohol and are not seeking treatment for substance abuse or mental illness.

"We need a shelter where health providers can come in and work with them, but it is not going to happen overnight," Miller says. "You have to build a relationship with people."

"This is a downtown population," she says, and there should be a place downtown for people who are not ready to seek help — a place they can stay as long as they need to.

Michael Hennessy, director of the Open Door Mission, says that many chronically homeless are not ready to face the depth of their problems and to seek help to change their lives. But he says that the closing of the garage, the eventual closing of Sanctuary Village, or the onset of very cold weather "can compel some of them to take that first step."

The mission offers a "first step" option, Hennessy says. If someone makes an appointment to get an ID (most homeless don't have one), or to meet with the social services department or a counselor, you get a bed for two weeks. Take another step, he says, and you get two more weeks.

"We can't force people to act," Hennessy says. But a lot of these guys haven't scored a win in decades, he says, and once they re-learn how, they like it and they keep going.

I can't argue with that. But both Miller and Hennessy say there is a critical shortage of beds in residential rehab and mental health care facilities for those asking for help.

I don't see an easy answer, but I don't see any answer that doesn't include a permanent downtown shelter for those who — whether or not they are ready to seek help — need a place to stay.

Former D&C and City writer Mark Hare is filling in while Mary Anna Towler is on vacation.