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Homeless camp could be shut down 

For two years, Geno Brown’s home has been a tarp-covered tent at the bottom of a steep, tree-shielded slope, just feet from South Avenue. But he’ll probably be forced off of the property on April 16.

Brown is part of a homeless encampment that stretched across properties owned by Bivona Child Advocacy Center and Spectrum, formerly Time Warner Cable, and that homeless advocates say housed fewer than 20 people at its peak. The tent city is now confined to the edge of Spectrum’s property, and Brown is one of only two residents. If they aren’t out of there by the April 16 deadline set by the property owners, then the Rochester police will be called in to clear the camp, according to homeless advocates.

Brown says he wants to be able to stay on the property until he finds acceptable housing, which will take longer than the time he’s been given. He doesn’t get along well with some of the people staying in the crowded shelters, he says, and the encampment provides him something stable in a life that can be hectic.

“It’s really a blessing to have a place like this where we could set up a camp,” Brown said one rainy night last week, speaking through his tent walls.

Representatives for Spectrum and Bivona each responded to questions about the situation with written statements. They say that for more than six months, they’ve been part of a group also made up of city officials State Department of Transportation representatives (the DOT owns an adjacent lot) that has worked to help find housing options for the people in the encampment and help them transition into it.

“A majority have successfully transitioned to alternative housing, and members continue to work with local organizations and to make additional resources available to provide the people remaining with suitable housing,” says a statement from Andrew Russell, Spectrum’s Northeast region director of communications.

Staff from St. Joe’s House of Hospitality were able to find housing for a person who was camping on Bivona’s property, says Pat Dupont, a Catholic Worker at the shelter.

That person moved into the permanent housing several months ago, and Bivona has since “taken measures to ensure that no one else settles on our property,” says the statement from Austin Reid, Bivona’s marketing and communications specialist. “At this time, there are no campers on agency property. Our primary concern is the safety and comfort of the children who come to the Child Advocacy Center seeking help and healing after experiencing abuse.”

Ideally, the two encampment holdouts would be allowed to remain on the property, Dupont says. The people living there keep to themselves and want to be left alone, he says, and they’re willing to work with the property owners to address any problems or concerns.

Person Centered Housing Options has been working since 2016 to help people in the encampment access subsidies and find apartments or other places to live, says Nick Coulter, the organization’s founder. It’s been able to place around 10 people, and ideally it’ll be able to help the holdouts find housing, too, he says.

“There’s a lot of nuance to that problem, and it’s not as easy as it sounds,” Coulter says.

Sometimes, transitioning people from homelessness to permanent housing is a matter of connecting them with a residence they’re comfortable with, Coulter says. For example, some homeless people are extremely reluctant to move into apartment buildings where they’ll have lots of neighbors, he says.

The encampment was one of the latest efforts to help Rochester’s hard-to-serve and chronically homeless populations, which have the most trouble finding shelter beds. The group includes people who have severe mental illness or chemical dependency problems that may prevent them from seeking out a bed or make it difficult for them to comply with shelter rules. Many of them have also been cut off from public assistance, which can make finding a bed difficult, since some shelters rely on county reimbursements.

The shelters that don’t rely on government funding, namely St. Joe’s and House of Mercy, often operate at capacity and end up taking in people who can’t find beds at other shelters. Other shelters with so-called hospitality beds, including Open Door Mission, often operate at capacity as well. During a count one night in January 2017, volunteers tallied 65 people without shelter in Rochester, Greece, and Irondequoit. The countywide organization that leads the survey says that on any given night more than 800 people are homeless across Monroe County.

Prior to 2014, some of the hard-to-serve population would spend their nights in the Civic Center Garage downtown, but that year the garage’s owner cleared them out. In response, advocates for the homeless set up a tent city known as Sanctuary Village in Washington Square Park, and then on State Department of Transportation property under the Douglass-Anthony bridge. But the city, citing unsafe and unsanitary conditions, eventually bulldozed the camp and fenced the property off.

Dupont, Coulter, and other advocates are concerned that the pending eviction, as they call it, at the South Avenue encampment could be a repeat of Sanctuary Village’s ugly end.

“What we don’t want to see is homeless people forced to leave the place that they’ve called home for a number of years,” Dupont says. “We feel they really don’t have another place to go. They’ve been pushed out and driven out of every single place that they’ve lived.”

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