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Rising number of homeless families points to Monroe County's deepening housing crisis

A woman who arrived to a Rochester shelter in the early morning hours sleeps under blankets on a mat in the women's overflow wing. The Barberry Street facility is one of six sites that Project Haven and REACH have opened since 2022 to help provide low-barrier sites for the chronically homeless.
Max Schulte
/
WXXI News
A woman who arrived to a Rochester shelter in the early morning hours sleeps under blankets on a mat in the women's overflow wing. The Barberry Street facility is one of six sites that Project Haven and REACH have opened since 2022 to help provide low-barrier sites for the chronically homeless.

Homelessness in Monroe County has reached levels not seen in years, if ever, according to a recent report.

The number of families with children in shelters or emergency housing was the highest in over a decade. And most every other category surveyed saw its highest numbers since 2007, the earliest data available.

Those figures are set out in an annual point-in-time, or PIT, count conducted earlier this year and released Friday by the nonprofit Partners Ending Homelessness.

Andy Carey , who leads Project Haven and its affiliated program, REACH Advocacy, talks with a guest after breakfast at the nonprofit's Barberry Street shelter in Rochester in December 2023.
Max Schulte
/
WXXI News
Andy Carey , who leads Project Haven and its affiliated program, REACH Advocacy, talks with a guest after breakfast at the nonprofit's Barberry Street shelter in Rochester.

A PIT count uses a single-day tally of the homeless population to attempt to build a snapshot of the issue. The results are then turned over to federal housing officials for determination of the need for government aid. This year’s count was done on Jan. 25.

“I’ve never seen homelessness like this, on the streets or with the families,” said Andy Carey, who leads Project Haven and its affiliated program, REACH Advocacy. “When I think about the family count ... I think of all of the people that aren’t counted because they’re afraid of CPS, or losing their kids, so they stay in cars or do whatever they can to stay out of the system.”

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He pointed to a cocktail of the end of the state eviction moratorium and rising housing costs leading to a spike in “new homeless.”

An exacerbated issue

Advocates and shelter workers have lamented a worsening situation among Rochester’s homeless. The report seems to validate those concerns, with the demographics of the homeless population rapidly evolving, while the longstanding systemic challenges of chronically homeless people remain ever-present.

Those populations converged inside Project Haven’s shelter on Barberry Street this past winter.

In the late December holiday season, the three-story, dormitory-style building was brimming with life. Guests meandered around the bottom floor’s common area, sipping coffee and finishing their last bits of breakfast. Upstairs, a slew of padded mats filled the living room space, each pad being someone’s personal refuge from the cold.

In his room on the third floor, a man who had been a resident for two months stood before a canvas. His light brushstrokes slowly built an abstract painting as classical music played on his stereo.

A guest at the Barberry Street shelter in Rochester, who gave his name as Donnie, paints in his room on the men's floor for long-term residents in December 2023. The shelter is one of six sites that Project Haven and REACH have opened since 2022 to help provide low-barrier sites for the chronically homeless.
Max Schulte
/
WXXI News
A guest at the Barberry Street shelter in Rochester who gave his name as Donnie paints in his room on the men's floor for long-term residents in December 2023. The shelter is one of six sites that Project Haven and REACH have opened since 2022 to help provide low-barrier sites for the chronically homeless.

He gave only his first name, Donnie. People who are not housed often do not want employers, co-workers or others to know their situation.

“This is one of the better places I’ve stayed, but it’s kind of chaotic,” he said, describing the common areas of the shelter. “I kind of just stay up here a lot. I don’t like the negativity.”

Carey said Donnie has since left the shelter, and he does not know his current whereabouts.

Donnie’s story was typical of those who historically have ended up in the shelter system —marked by prison time and addiction issues that he was working to move past. But that winter, Rochester’s shelters were concerned about a new wave of people entering the system.

The end of the state’s COVID-induced eviction moratorium in January 2022, coupled with skyrocketing rental prices, had bred a feeling that people who had some safety net to fall on before would enter the system. Namely, an influx of families with children.

“Crisis is a huge word,” Connie Sanderson, executive director of Partners Ending Homelessness, said at the time. “But we’re certainly in a point that we’ve never been before, and the question is, what can be done about it?”

Sanderson now has the numbers to back that up.

For example, 130 households with children were reported in shelters or emergency housing, surpassing the previous record of 109 set last year. The 2023 PIT count was done on Jan. 26 of that year.

Likewise, the number of people completely unsheltered came to 80, almost double the 42 seen last year, but it didn't set a record. In the 2013 report, that figure came in at 124.

In all, 1,056 homeless people in shelters were counted, the first time the reports have seen numbers hit four figures.

The tenant protections being considered mirror newly passed state law, a trimmed down version of the bill previously considered by the city.

‘An uphill battle’

Project Haven’s Carey said the PIT count is a valuable metric, but it doesn’t assess the full scope of homelessness. For example, it does not account for people living in abandoned buildings, which outreach workers tend to not access due to safety concerns.

Both Sanderson and Carey said the moratorium ending and rising housing costs are the largest contributors to spiking homelessness. For reference, fair market rent for a one-bedroom apartment has risen 38% between 2019 and 2024, according to data from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Evictions, meanwhile, have returned to pre-pandemic levels. According to state data on eviction filings, Monroe County saw 8,316 eviction filings last year, comparable to 8,789 in 2019.

But what Carey believes is different now is the safety nets people once fell back on have become more fraught.

Residents sit at a table after breakfast at the Barberry Street shelter in Rochester in December 2023. The shelter is one of six sites that Project Haven and REACH have opened since 2022 to help provide low-barrier sites for the chronically homeless.
Max Schulte
/
WXXI News
Residents sit at a table after breakfast at the Barberry Street shelter in Rochester in December 2023. The shelter is one of six sites that Project Haven and REACH have opened since 2022 to help provide low-barrier sites for the chronically homeless.

“It used to be you put a notice on someone’s door that in 14 days their locks would be changed, and when you got there to change the locks, nobody was there, they went to family or friends,” Carey said. “I think we’ve hit a tipping point where the family and friends are full, and people are heading to shelters.”

Sanderson said this week that the PIT count represents a new era in Rochester homelessness trends. Where that leads is still anyone’s guess.

“There’s, I think, a whole host of factors playing into this,” Sanderson said. “The question is, will these increases continue to keep going up, or if they kind of, hopefully, level back off again.”

Anna Valeria-Iseman at the Open Door Mission, one of the area’s largest shelters, echoed Carey and Sanderson’s assessment. Homeless families hashave always been a silent crisis, she said.

“What COVID did was draw these numbers to the surface,” Valeria-Iseman said.

She pointed to a variety of reasons as to why the population has been undercounted, including varying definitions of “homelessness” used by federal agencies, and the failure of safety nets like friends and family, as described by Carey.

When asked if she believed the count in Rochester represents a tipping point, Valeria-Iseman was torn. She said the issue has worsened, but there is still valuable work to be done.

“I wouldn’t still be doing this work if I didn’t think we could fix it,” she said. “But it’s definitely an uphill battle, and it always seems like one step forward, two steps back.”

A local nonprofit that serves homeless youths in Rochester is looking to expand its program for the next school year.

Corrected: July 3, 2024 at 10:56 AM EDT
Due to an error in the point-in-time report released by Partners Ending Homelessness, a previous version of this story inaccurately reported the number of households with children in shelters or emergency housing. The story has been updated with the correct information.
Gino Fanelli is an investigative reporter who also covers City Hall. He joined the staff in 2019 by way of the Rochester Business Journal, and formerly served as a watchdog reporter for Gannett in Maryland and a stringer for the Associated Press.