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Here's what's in a new $47M plan to end homelessness in Monroe County

A woman takes plastic garbage bags to a tent on Loomis Street, after the city has started fencing off empty lots on Loomis Street that have served as a homeless encampment for several years. Many of the people living on the empty lots have begun packing up belongings in anticipation of the city fencing off the area.
Max Schulte
A woman takes plastic garbage bags to a tent on Loomis Street. Before the city razed them, some of the empty lots on Loomis Street had served as a homeless encampment for several years.

A new blueprint aimed at ending homelessness in Monroe County calls on county officials to spend $47 million on everything from vouchers to help cover the cost of rent to investments in new affordable housing units and financing for jobs for formerly homeless people.

The "Action Plan to End Homelessness” was developed by a group of elected leaders, housing advocates, and people who have been or are homeless.

Legislator Rachel Barnhart is leading the push behind the plan, setting the stage for a potential budget battle with County Executive Adam Bello, who will introduce his proposed spending plan for 2024 in late fall.

“No one should be without shelter in Monroe County,” Barnhart said. “I think that both Democrats and Republicans can agree that people need housing as a basic necessity of life. And I know that we are a compassionate community. The question is, how can we bridge the gaps that we all see in our community?”

Barnhart said the county could finance the plan, at least in part, through a new policy that demands the county keep 10% of its $1.3 billion budget, or roughly $130 million, in reserves. The county currently has more than that in its reserves, though it’s unclear how large the surplus is.

The plan was spurred by the situation at a Motel 6 in Gates in late July, when dozens of homeless people who had been placed there by the county, including some with young children, were suddenly forced to vacate. The situation highlighted the area’s shortage of affordable and emergency housing, as county officials and housing advocates scrambled to place the hotel tenants within the local emergency housing network that was already near capacity.

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The plan takes issue with the amount of rental assistance the county provides people, which advocates say cannot cover the full cost of an apartment in Monroe County. Under public assistance, which are set by the state, a person without children gets $440 to cover rent and other costs.

Amy D’Amico, an attorney and housing advocate, said that amount doesn’t even cover monthly rent in a rooming house.

In a separate report released Tuesday, the non-profit legal group Empire Justice Center assailed the “profound inadequacy” of the rates, which were last adjusted for households without children in 1988, and for households with children in 2003.

The plan proposes two forms of housing vouchers, with the subsidies paid directly to landlords, to help bridge the gap.

“This is direct assistance to people,” Barnhart said. “The state and federal government are simply not meeting the needs of people with lower incomes, and so Rochester has thousands of evictions every single year because people simply cannot afford the rent.”

One proposed voucher program would direct $23.1 million to help 3,300 people exiting emergency housing afford market-rate apartments. The other would be a $5 million test program for 400 families that have incomes lower than 50 percent of the area median income — $47,500 for a family of four — that are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. Those families would pay 30% of an apartment’s cost with vouchers covering the rest.

Two rough shelters near a railroad bridge
Max Schulte
Shelters at Peace Village, a homeless encampment immediately southwest of downtown Rochester.

The plan also proposes a program in which people who have been homeless are hired and trained as peer brokers to help homeless people navigate the housing market and to help teach them skills to achieve stability.

D’Amico said that proposal grew out of suggestions from people who have experienced homelessness.

“They said, 'If there's going to be people helping other homeless people to get an apartment and stay in an apartment, that should be us, we should have those jobs,’” D’Amico said. “‘We should have the ability to advocate on behalf of this project.’”

Barnhart said the plan is meant to serve as a “menu of options.”

What else is in the plan?

  • Establishing neighborhood-based rental arrears distribution sites, an idea modeled after the rental assistance portion of AME Zion’s Beyond the Sanctuary program. That program helps people at risk of eviction or homelessness, or who need assistance with security deposits. 
  • Establishing a $300,000 program to help families pay for security deposits. 
  • Increasing the amount the county pays shelters to take a person, which is currently $30, to $47. The plan argues that an increase would allow shelters to hire more staff to help clients get out of the shelters and into apartments quickly. 
  • Directing $750,000 to expand the existing network of shelters for the chronically homeless. 
  • Establishing a $6 million program to rehabilitate vacant houses, using the assistance of area construction vocational programs. 
  • Investing $850,000 in new tiny home communities. 
  • Establishing a $2 million grant fund for affordable housing projects. 

The plan also calls for the county to establish a housing task force, a proposal already floated by Barnhart and fellow Democratic Legislator Mercedes Vazquez Simmons.

Corrected: August 17, 2023 at 12:30 PM EDT
This article has been updated to correct how much money public assistance recipients receive to assist with housing costs.
Jeremy Moule is a deputy editor with WXXI News. He also covers Monroe County.