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Opening more homeless shelters in winter won’t solve problem, advocates say. Here’s why.

Max Schulte | WXXI News

Issiah Simmons says he's been homeless off-and-on for most of his life. Sometimes he stays with his wife and 8-year-old son. More often, he stays outside in all kinds of weather. 

"Sometimes being homeless will mess with you mentally. It'll make you feel like I'm never going to get no place I'm never going to do it. Why am I even living?" said Simmons, 42. 

These days, he's staying at the House of Mercy Homeless shelter near the Amtrak station in downtown Rochester.

“Right now, I'm just trying to see if I can get some help, get a place. It’s difficult,” he said. “I’ve been in the parks cutting myself up. Just being out here in the streets will cause you to get more mental health problems with more stress.”

Some folks at the shelter where Simmons stays are part of a grassroots group called The Homeless Union. They’re calling on Monroe County officials to find permanent housing solutions before winter. 

“The disadvantage of a shelter is that it's temporary,” said Sister Grace Miller, who runs the House of Mercy shelter and works with the Homeless Union. “So when we try to move them into apartments, or better living situations, the housing situation outside is horrendous. There is really no housing for the homeless.” 

That’s the case for Simmons and at least 800 other people in the county. About one out of every 1,000 people here is homeless, according to the Partners Ending Homelessness organization. 

Credit Noelle E. C. Evans | WXXI News
Issiah Simmons, 42, is staying at the House of Mercy homeless shelter in downtown Rochester.

Simmons receives Social Security income — often referred to as being "on disability" — due to a mental health condition, but the roughly $860 he gets a month isn't enough to cover most rent costs, let alone other expenses.

He’s on the waiting list for Section 8 housing.

"If I can get subsidized housing at least I have some money in my pocket, and I can say 'okay, now I can try to go for a driver's license, you know, try to get things for my apartment," he said.

"If somebody just gave me a one bedroom or studio, I wouldn't have no money to get a bed or nothing like that but I would just be happy just to lay on that floor."

However, so far nothing has opened up. The waiting lists for subsidized housing are closed. So his best option for now is a shelter — but his health isn’t improving there, he said.

“I can't even get medication,” he said. “If I get medication and I have to set it down, just by being in the shelter, and I’m certainly not judging people, but they got people that will take your medications, steal them, use them just to get high off of them, you know?”

County Executive Adam Bello has said that more emergency shelter options will be available during the cold season, but Miller said that’s not a long-term solution.

“We would like our homeless treated with dignity and respect and give them adequate housing,” she said. “If it means, you know, setting them up in hotels ... or find a building where the homeless can stay and feel safe, feel wanted.”

Corinda Crossdale, deputy county executive for Health and Human Services, said in a statement that Bello is “actively engaging with community partners on potential solutions for both short and long term housing options to address homelessness and will share updates as soon as possible.”

While any one person’s situation is personal, the U.S. Government Accountability Office has identified some common contributing factors: the presence of a substance abuse disorder, inadequate community resources for the mentally ill, increases in personal crises, cuts in public assistance, increased unemployment dating back to the 1970s, and the decline in the number of low-income housing units. 

From 2017 to 2020, estimates from the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development show the number of people who are homelessness rose by about 30,000 people, from about 551,000 to about 580,500 on any given night.

“Homelessness is likely to remain a problem due to continuing shortages of mental health services and low-income housing,” the agency stated. 

Credit Max Schulte | WXXI News
VOCAL-NY, House of Mercy, and other local activists called for support for affordable housing across the state in front of the Cadillac Hotel in Rochester, Oct 13. The Cadillac closed in 2018, displacing residents to nearby shelters.

Right now is an especially insecure time in the housing market. Rents are climbing across the country. Local energy costs are expected to spike. And the federal eviction moratorium was recently lifted.

Getting enough low-income housing to meet the need here will not be an overnight fix, said Connie Sanderson, executive director of Partners Ending Homelessness. The organization receives funding from HUD to manage and coordinate support for people who are homeless.

“It's been a long-standing issue,” Sanderson said. “We aren't going to be able to build our way out of the affordable housing crisis in probably my lifetime.”

Simmons doesn’t have that kind of time. He’s holding onto a vision of the life he wants for himself: one of simplicity, stability, and family. 

“I just want to be able to have a key, go into my room, my apartment, shut my door, call my son, ask him: 'Can you come over?' Take him to the park and just live a normal life,” he said. 

But for him and hundreds of others in the Rochester area, that remains out of reach.

Includes reporting from WXXI’s April Franklin and Racquel Stephen.

Noelle E. C. Evans is an education reporter/producer with a background in documentary filmmaking and education.