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Our View: Time to get serious about solving homeless problem

A long-term response to Rochester's homelessness problem would provide something akin to an all-in-one facility or cluster of facilities where homeless people could get a meal, shop at a food shelf, take shelter from the cold, bathe, spend the night and get a change of clothing. They could meet with social workers, get basic medical care and perhaps some employment counseling.

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By all accounts, the homeless day shelter at the former site of the Silver Lake fire station in Rochester has been a success.

In the year since The Landing opened there, the shelter has served about 60 people daily and, contrary to some predictions, has not caused an uptick in criminal activity in Silver Lake Park. In fact, the facility has operated so smoothly that it has been largely absent from the news headlines – which is a very good thing.

Unfortunately, a clock is now ticking. The nonprofit organization that operates The Landing leases the former fire station from the city, and that lease expires at the end of April. Without an extension of that lease, the homeless day center will need a new location, and one site currently under consideration is the former Whiskey Bones Roadhouse building on North Broadway.

This possible move raises several important questions.

For starters, we wonder why The Landing's current lease of the fire station will not be extended. Rochester City Council member Shaun Palmer has said that he doesn't believe there would be four votes on the council to do so. Why not? Are there other plans in the works for this site? The city should provide its rationale for asking the homeless day center to find what will be its fourth location in less than two years.

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But the reality is that the fire station site was always meant to be temporary, and even if the lease were extended, it would likely be just the latest in a series of stop-gap, partial solutions to the problem of homelessness in Rochester.

So, the bigger questions are these: Does Rochester want a long-term solution to this problem? And if so, what would that solution entail?

Currently, people experiencing homelessness in Rochester spend a lot of time on the move between the Salvation Army, the Dorothy Day House, the Landing and any of a dozen homeless encampments that are scattered throughout the city. Some hang out in the public library. Some sleep in parking ramp stairwells until security guards move them along. It's a nomadic, complicated, dangerous existence that includes regular interactions with law enforcement.

Moving the homeless day center three miles north would further complicate that existence. While we are not completely opposed to the idea of repurposing the now-crumbling Whiskey Bones site into something that helps people, its distance from other providers of homeless services downtown is a huge problem, if not an outright dealbreaker. Three miles is a long walk in good weather, and in the winter – well, even with free access to public transit, we anticipate fewer homeless people using a shelter they can't easily reach on foot.

If the homeless day center is going to relocate, shouldn't it be to a permanent, centrally located site, in a facility that improves both accessibility and services?

We think so.

A long-term response to Rochester's homelessness problem would provide something akin to an all-in-one facility or cluster of facilities where homeless people could get a meal, shop at a food shelf, take shelter from the cold, bathe, spend the night and get a change of clothing. They could meet with social workers, get basic medical care and perhaps some employment counseling.

Is such a system feasible? We don't know, but we'd like Rochester to find out.

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We urge Mayor Kim Norton to create a task force to investigate what similar-sized cities are doing to help their homeless population. That group should include the obvious stakeholders – the Salvation Army, faith-based organizations and other nonprofits – but also should involve representatives from Mayo Clinic and Rochester's business community.

Homelessness, you see, impacts everyone. It drains time and resources from taxpayer-funded first responders. It takes a financial toll on medical providers. It affects the way a city is viewed by visitors who encounter people sleeping on park benches or panhandling at busy intersections, and it affects businesses that are regular stops for the homeless in their daily journey of survival.

It's time for Rochester to get serious about finding real, long-term solutions to this problem.

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