« Return to News

Sister Grace, protesters seek more help for homeless

DRILEY@DemocratandChronicle.com

About 20 protesters gathered Friday morning outside the Monroe County Office Building to press local officials to do more to help the homeless.

The demonstrators, organized by Sister Grace Miller of the House of Mercy, said the event was prompted by last week’s decision to restrict nighttime access to the Civic Center garage, which has served as a de facto place to sleep for homeless people who can’t or won’t find beds at shelters. The protests began last week, but this was the first at the county building on Main Street.

Miller said protesters want the county to reverse the lockout until permanent arrangements can be made for the people who stayed there and to come up with a broader plan to house the homeless.

A letter to County Executive Maggie Brooks from a “coalition of concerned residents,” including Miller, said that until the county meets its moral and legal obligations to the homeless, “we will engage in a campaign of nonviolent direct action and if necessary, legal action.”

Miller pointed to a section of the state constitution that says government must see to the “aid, care and support of the needy.” Advocates and private shelters are willing to do their part, but they can’t do it alone, she said.

“It is their responsibility, and they are putting their responsibility on us,” Miller said of the county.

In response, county spokesman Jesse Sleezer said that Monroe County spends nearly $5 million and contracts with 17 shelters to provide emergency housing each year. The county also is running a demonstration project to help reach long-term homeless people, he said.

“The county is proud of its work to improve outcomes for those affected and will continue to partner with respected local shelters and service providers moving forward,” Sleezer said in an email.

Some of the protesters chanted, “Maggie Brooks has got to go,” as well as, “Fight, fight, fight, housing is a human right.”

The garage is owned by the Civic Center Monroe County Local Development Corporation, a nonprofit company that the county set up in 2002 to manage the facility. Mapco Auto Parks operates the garage.

Plans to curb the homeless encampment came to light in November, when the garage owner and operator cited customer complaints and worsening sanitary conditions there. Miller and company have since asked for time to find an alternative. Miller still hopes to turn a North Clinton Avenue building into a new downtown shelter, with county support.

Miller said shelters can fill up, and that one of them turned away a few homeless men she brought there the night that the Civic Center garage closed.

The Open Door Mission on North Plymouth Avenue has 40 beds, and the number available each night can vary, said Karin Peña, the mission’s volunteer manager.

“Recently, we have been at capacity, especially with the closing of the Civic Center garage,” she said.

Coty A. Harris, 24, a homeless man, joined Friday’s protest. He said anyone could end up homeless.

“Even the richest people can go broke,” he said.

DRILEY@DemocratandChronicle.com