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Two new options for Rochester’s homeless 

Every crack and crevice of The House of Mercy is stuffed with humanity, creating a unique microclimate of conversation, TV buzz, and flashes of temper.

"Get these fuckin' doughnuts off the couch!" a woman yells while charging into the house's main living area. "Every fuckin' time! Come here and there's shit on my couch!"

The House of Mercy, on Hudson Avenue in northeast Rochester, provides food, shelter, clothing, and advocacy for the city's homeless. The house and its founder, Sister Grace Miller, are particularly known for their outreach to the chronically homeless: those who, for myriad reasons, either can't or won't go to other shelters.

Some members of this hard-to-serve segment of the homeless population, usually estimated at between 30 and 50 people, sought refuge in the Civic Center parking garage downtown until the garage owner, citing safety and other concerns, started locking them out in late 2013.

Since then, Miller and her supporters have been pushing city and county officials to find a permanent place for the chronically homeless.

That problem may be solved. The House of Mercy has bought a larger building at 285 Ormond Street in northeast Rochester, which should accommodate many of the chronically homeless. House of Mercy has also found a temporary shelter for the chronically homeless for the winter. The temporary site will be a bridge location until the Ormond Street building opens sometime next spring or early summer.

The Ormond site is three times larger than the Hudson Avenue site, says House of Mercy social worker Kelly Finnigan, and will accommodate about 100 people. The Hudson site technically fits 19, he says, but the house has squeezed in more than 70 people on the worst winter nights.

The House of Mercy paid $215,000 for the Ormond site. Enough money was raised to buy the building outright, Finnigan says, with funds left over.

"The new building will have all new everything," he says. "We're going to purchase beds, we're going to purchase mattresses, we're going to install a pretty good industrial kitchen, we're going to have laundry facilities."

The Ormond Street building's previous tenants, including the Judicial Process Commission, have been or will be relocated, Finnigan says, so House of Mercy will occupy the entire building, which has about 12,600 square feet of space. The Hudson Avenue building has about 4,300 square feet of space, he says.

The building does need about $300,000 in renovations before it can open, Finnigan says. The house has some money on hand, he says, and there's a fund-raising campaign for the rest. But Finnigan says that he's confident that the opening will proceed as planned.

"We'll raise the money," he says. "We feel really good about that."

House of Mercy has hired an architect and developer, he says, and both will be involved in the fund-raising effort.

"We're going to get a lot of stuff done at reduced costs," Finnigan says, "both by the architecture firm, different engineer firms, and the developer who's doing the renovations."

Finnigan says that the City of Rochester plans to buy the House of Mercy's Hudson Avenue building, but a city spokesperson won't confirm it.

Rochester's hard-to-serve homeless population got a lot of attention last year, during one of the worst Rochester winters on record, when they pitched tents beneath the Douglass-Anthony bridge.

But the tent city, called "Sanctuary Village," became a fetid camp polluted with drug paraphernalia and human waste, city officials said, and they took down the encampment. The area was ultimately fenced off.

The homeless eventually took refuge in a Canal Street warehouse donated by Buckingham Properties. The community pitched in, too, taking blankets, food, and other supplies.

But Finnigan says that the warehouse wasn't ideal because it lacked heat and water. People used portable toilets, he said, and the homeless were driven to off-site locations for showers.

This year's winter shelter has heat, showers, bathrooms, washer and dryer, and other amenities. But it's not just a roof and a warm bed, says Mary Hadley, who is part of the communications team for REACH, the Rochester Emergency Action Committee for the Homeless. The group is made up of about a dozen faith communities and social organizations.

The homeless who come to the temporarily shelter will also undergo an initial assessment, Hadley says, and receive ongoing case management.

REACH won't share the location of the site yet, citing last-minute negotiations and arrangements. Hadley would only say that it is on "the east side of downtown between Main and the Public Market." The winter shelter should open sometime this month and stay open until April 15, 2016, with the option of a 30-day extension in case the winter weather sticks around.

"We'd like to keep it open as long as there's a freeze," Hadley says.

But there are questions of funding around the winter site. REACH asked the county and the city to each chip in $50,000, and REACH would raise the rest. The county doesn't appear willing to contribute, and the city's share is contingent on the county and REACH putting up their money.

Hadley says that REACH will continue to lobby county government and county elected officials to change their mind. And the group is also trying to get the city to commit to its $50,000 share, she says, even if the county doesn't contribute.

"The matter is under review," says city spokesperson Jessica Alaimo.

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