More than 6,100 people experience homelessness annually in Monroe County, and on any given day, 850 people are without a home to call their own.
“While these numbers are staggering, they do not include all the people who are experiencing housing instability: people who are doubled up, people who are paying well in excess of 30 percent of their income for housing,” said Connie Sanderson, executive director of Partners Ending Homelessness, formerly Continuum of Care. “We need to work as partners to reduce barriers to accessing housing. We need to support efforts to create additional affordable housing resources in the community, and support other community initiatives that are addressing poverty, living wages, timely access to healthcare and treatment, just to name a few.”
Sanderson’s message was delivered Tuesday to hundreds of business and organizational leaders, and those on the front lines of the homelessness crisis in the area during the 15th annual Western New York Homeless Symposium – Bridges: From Barriers to Solutions. Hosted by the Homeless Services Network—a 60-member network composed of providers and agencies that offer services to homeless individuals—and held at Rochester’s Hyatt Regency downtown, attendees at the full-day event heard from a number of speakers on topics ranging from coordinating programs and services to end homelessness to opiate trends and serving those who served our country.
“At the center, we say it’s not how you stand, it’s the stand you take,” said Elaine Spaull, executive director of the Center for Youth and city councilwoman. “Remember, you may be the only person who believes in a homeless person. You may be the only person who looks at them and says you matter to me. You are a human being and you matter to me. That’s what it takes.”
Channeling noted author and Economic Policy Institute Fellow Richard Rothstein—who spoke in Rochester this summer on how government practices, including redlining, created and continue to maintain segregated neighborhoods—PathStone Corp. CEO Stuart Mitchell noted the importance of learning about Rochester’s historic segregation when confronting homelessness.
“As we think about what we’re working on today, I think we also have to think about how it is that we became the segregated communities we are today,” Mitchell said in his welcome speech. “Let’s also take time to think about those structures, those systems, the ways in which we have created barriers.”
The event’s keynote speaker, Judge Richard Dollinger, pointed to our long history of recognizing the importance of home: from stories in the Bible to literature to Dorothy’s credo in “The Wizard of Oz” that “there’s no place like home.”
“In short, home is among the most powerful images in our culture and who we consider ourselves. And regardless of our race, creed, color, national origin or any other factor, we all recognize that home is where your heart is,” Dollinger told the audience. “With all of these powerful, life-sustaining images, how is it that we, the culture that celebrates home, tolerate homelessness?”
Homelessness, Dollinger said, is not just about place, a shelter, a roof over someone’s head, a meal in the morning and a smile before going to bed.
“All of these gestures are critically important and they are part of shaping our response to this national tragedy. But the real issue is that homelessness, in my view, is about identity, and how individuals from all walks of life can find that identity ebbing away in their lives until they no longer recall, remember or even envision what a home is all about,” he explained.
Tuesday’s event was sponsored by several local organizations including Partners Ending Homelessness, the Center for Youth, Coordinated Care Services Inc., PathStone and others. Some 20 workshops were offered for program staff, management and consumers.
Dollinger said more families experience homelessness nationwide than in any other industrialized nation, by some estimates 500,000 annually. A typical homeless family is composed of a single mother and her two young children, he noted. One in 30 American children experience homelessness annually, and 51 percent are under the age of five.
“This problem stares us in the face. It transcends bricks and mortar. It defies easy solutions and requires a comprehensive approach,” Dollinger said. “Only with this approach can we begin to restore in the minds of individuals a sense that they too have a place to call home.”