Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Effort to remove homeless people from Civic Center garage takes time and patience

Social worker Andy Carey has been spending time at the Civic Center Garage in recent nights, trying to convince people who seek shelter there to move on.

"I've known a few of them over the years," he said. "Some have agreed to come over to our shelter and hang out with us a while and others haven't, and that's kind of the way it works."

Andy Carey, co-chair of Reach Advocacy and co-founder of MC Collaborative
photo provided
Andy Carey, co-chair of Reach Advocacy and co-founder of MC Collaborative

Carey is the co-chair of Reach Advocacy, one of a number of organizations and government agencies working to help individuals who have no permanent place to stay.

Homelessness is a chronic problem in Rochester, just as it is in most cities. But the Civic Center Garage became the subject of more intense focus recently after an escalation in violence.

In one instance, police said a man was attacked there in January after leaving an event at the Blue Cross Arena with his family.

Carey sees this as a systemic problem, a reflection of a system that's been overwhelmed by the pandemic for two years.

"I know a lot of folks that could usually go to the hospital and maybe stabilize in inpatient mental health for a little while haven't been able to do that and that's really just because hospitals are pushed to capacity and emergency rooms are low-staffed, that kind of thing," he said.

A coordinated, multi-agency effort by the city of Rochester and Monroe County includes 24-hour security at the garage.

But Corinda Crossdale, the county's executive director of health and human services, says the goal is not to arrest people.

Corinda Crossdale, Monroe county executive for health and human services
Corinda Crossdale, Monroe County's executive for health and human services.

"Our human service team has the lead," she said. "If we need law enforcement to help us get somebody into treatment, or to get the services that they need, they're on standby to assist us with those types of activities."

Members of the county's IMPACT team are pooling their resources with the city's Forensic Intervention Team (FIT) and multiple other organizations, including Veteran Outreach Services and community-based groups.

"So that we're hitting every single potential issue that somebody's facing all at the same time," Crossdale explained.

So far this winter, 54 individuals were transferred from the garage. Some were placed in a shelter or other temporary housing; others were taken to Strong Memorial Hospital for mental health and substance abuse treatment.

By the end of a night, Crossdale said there might be a few people who don't want to leave the garage, but they're not being forcibly removed.

"If somebody is clearly under the influence and we feel that there's a safety risk with just walking away and leaving them there, then there's other pieces of the law we can use to transport that person to the hospital so they can get a proper evaluation," she said.

Monroe County Executive Adam Bello recently said sheltering in the garage, which homeless people have used as a haven for years, is no longer an option.

"It is inhumane for human beings to live in squalor, without restroom facilities, sleeping on a concrete floor and breathing exhaust fumes," Bello said. "Anyone who advocates otherwise needs to question their position or motivation."

But the effort to move people to shelters, hospitals, or temporary housing requires time and patience.

Carey said it's hard for some people to go a place with curfews and other restrictions when they are accustomed to fending for themselves.

"I know it's not easy for me to change," said Carey, "so I don't expect others to change instantly."

But he said trust can be built with persistence, getting to know people and how they came to be on the street.

Homelessness, he said, can happen to anyone.

"I've worked with people who were attorneys," Carey said. "We've had some business owners, all sorts of professions, and whether it's really serious issues with depression, mental health, or addiction, life can just start going that way."

Beth Adams joined WXXI as host of Morning Edition in 2012 after a more than two-decade radio career. She was the longtime host of the WHAM Morning News in Rochester. Her career also took her from radio stations in Elmira, New York, to Miami, Florida.