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Homelessness Services Network comes together to address barriers to access for homeless in Rochester

A local non-profit group dedicated to ending homelessness held a symposium Tuesday, focused on addressing barriers that homeless people face when they need services. 

In 2018, at least 835 people were homeless in Monroe County, according to a count by the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Across the state nearly 92,000 people were without a place to go last year.

But those numbers don’t account for records of student homelessness. The New York State Education Department reported around 153,000 students in temporary housing last year.

Valerie Douglas with the Center for Youth in Rochester says that the numbers are not accurate. That’s partly because they do not reflect the full spectrum of homeless situations, from living on the street or in encampments, to couch surfing and doubling up, meaning when one family takes in another.

She says that addressing homelessness means meeting people where they are.

"Get someone into their own apartment first. Get them housed. Caused that’s really Maslov’s hierarchy of need. Safety, feeling housed. How can you go get a job if you’re going to a shelter at night, right? Trying to feed your kids," Douglas says.

But housing is just one part of the equation. Addressing the source of the problem is another. That could include anything from systemic issues like redlining, mental health, substance abuse, and domestic violence.

Trauma is one of two leading predictors for long-term homelessness according to the National Center on Family Homelessness. Douglas says that the experience of being homeless can also be traumatizing.

She says that one initiative going forward is to make services more trauma-informed.

"Trauma-informed is really looking at someone and instead of saying ‘what’s wrong with you’ you say ‘what happened to you?’" she says. "How do we understand where you’re at and what your strengths and skills you bring and what things don’t work for you?"

Douglas says that the most common way people experience homelessness is by couch surfing or doubling up, meaning that they are staying with other families.

"They get bounced out and they are staying with cousins and that dries up and then they gotta stay with neighbors and they’re staying with maybe a friend of a friend of a friend which leads to really vulnerable positions where they’re really targeted by predators and folks who have their best interests at heart because they need a place to stay," she says.

Douglas says that homelessness could happen to anyone, and understanding homelessness also means hearing perspectives from those who have gone through it or are going through it.

"Not only can it happen to anyone based on some changes and tragedies or dynamics in a life but if you aren’t talking to people who have experienced it and can speak to it and really explore it with you, you might need to learn something more," Douglas says.

Noelle E. C. Evans is WXXI's Murrow Award-winning Education reporter/producer.