ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Community members and local organizations are working to make sure people in our community without a home have a place to sleep at night. 

Groups like Recovery All Ways and Rochester’s Homeless Union have now helped move more than 30 residents into motels, hoping to keep them safe and warm during the winter months and on-going pandemic. 

Sheldon Thompson is one of the individuals who has been staying at Motel 6 in Rochester. He grew up in the Town of Nunda, New York, but has been in and out of homelessness for the past three years. 

“I’ve had a bit of bad luck running. I guess I became homeless when a relationship went south,” Sheldon said. “I had family to turn to, but nobody to move in with. So in my mind, being in a small town, there wasn’t really many job opportunities. And when you don’t have a vehicle or resources… I decided to move to Rochester where there’s a bus line and plenty of job opportunities.”

Thompson said growing up in the country, he wasn’t super afraid to be without a home, but he still asked for help from local organizations in Rochester. However, Sheldon said he was often sent to homeless shelters in the area. While these shelters can be helpful, Thompson said he’s not always comfortable staying in one. 

“Growing up, I’ve been diagnosed with different mental illnesses, so a place like that I’m not comfortable. I’ve had many things happened to me being homeless, I’ve slept in a car garage, and have woken up being kicked in the mouth,” Thompson explained. 

Sabine Adler, Organizer Coordinator for the Rochester Homeless Union, said in 2019, there was 800-900 homeless individuals in Rochester a night. She said the majority of funding to help these individuals goes to homeless shelters. 

“No one has ever really stopped to think, why do we think that shelters are the solution? And has that actually changed the number of homeless people a year? And why is that the primary method and funding source that we’re using to address homelessness, because homelessness has only gone to increase at a rate every year,” she said. 

Adler said she’s worked with numerous people over the years who don’t do well in shelters because it can be triggering. 

“You’re putting 30 plus people into the same building and most of them are like dorm-style bunk beds, so you’re not really ever getting privacy from other people, from staff, all people who have significant mental health issues and traumas and triggers into one place together, and it’s constant chaos,” Adler said. 

Because of this, local groups like Recovery All Ways and the Homeless Union are raising money over GoFundMe to put people in motels. So far, they have raised more than $10,000. Adler said most of the people they are helping have been “sanctioned” from social services. 

“A sanction means that you did not comply with social services regulations. That could be you missed appointments, you filled forms out wrong, you didn’t complete treatment. There’s a variety of reasons that people get sanctioned. And then you have a certain amount of time, it can be up to 30, 90, 180 days, where you cannot receive any social service assistance at all,” she explained. 

Adler said the past few weeks, they have put dozens of people into motels and they have been working well. Since staying at Motel 6, Sheldon says it’s been two years since he’s slept so well.

“It’s a blessing,” he said. “It’s nice being inside. And like I said, if it wasn’t for them, I’d still be outside.”

Motels can also provide a space for people to have privacy, rest and have time to themselves. Adler said it helps people “get out of the constant haze of being outside and being in constant survival mode and being like… any second something can happen.”

However, while the motels are helpful for many, Adler said they are only a temporarily solution. She said more has to be done to address why so many people are homeless in the first place.  

“We have thousands of people that are up for eviction right now and so we have a huge crisis if we don’t have larger systems in place that really put people before profit. And so when you have a larger system like that, you’re going to have people who can’t get stable housing,” Adler said. “Homelessness doesn’t just have one image to it. It’s actually so much larger because so many people don’t truly actually have power to have stable, consistent housing that works for them and stable, consistent jobs that treat them well and pay them well for the labor they’re putting in.”

Adler said RAW and other volunteers are working to show there is a “huge crisis” going on and something more needs to be done on a city and state level.  

“Everyone has a right to the help that they need. We are trying to help people as best as we can, but also expose what the gaps are and what the failures are in our current system, because we still have so many people who are out on the street,” Adler said. 

Adler said one of problems that persists is that the process of getting social services can be exhausting and confusing for people, especially if they don’t have a home. Adler said for some, getting a house can take anywhere from three to six months. 

“When you’re doing case management with people who live on the street, of course, you’re not going to find them, of course you’re going to have missed appointments, of course things are going to be filled out wrong. So we’re just seeing that the programs that are designed right now, just aren’t designed by the people who are directly impacted by it,” Adler said. 

She also adds the solutions to ending homelessness need to come from those experiencing it. This is why a big part of their mission is meeting people where they are at and getting to hear their stories. 

“Our primary goal is to really build relationship and to help people survive, and also building relationships, that we want to gather people’s stories and not in a way where we have to fill out a whole document to prove that you’re homeless enough to get services, but to truly understand where people are coming from, what their specific needs are,” Adler said. 

Sheldon says these connections and relationships have changed his life. He called those with RAW a “blessing” and said he didn’t know where he would be without some of the volunteers. 

“I know I have people in my corner and people that check on me on a daily, multiple times a day,” Sheldon said. “They do nothing but help and there’s like no strings attached. Like they don’t expect nothing. And the amount of people that they were able to get off the street in this cold and out of the snow is unbelievable, and without them I don’t think a lot of people would have survived it.” 

Because of the generosity given to him, Sheldon wants to give back. He’s been joining volunteers with RAW to reach others who are homeless in our community, delivering meals to people and offering hats, gloves, hand warmers and more to those living on the streets. 

“Having someone that’s in the same shoes reassure you that there’s no strings attached, and they just want to know that people are safe and alive and warm, and all around general healthy, I would want that reassurance if I was approached by two people I didn’t know,” Sheldon said. 

Photo by Daniel Sarch for Recovery All Ways

He adds that he wants the public to know that not all homeless people are the same. Sheldon referenced a recent attack by a homeless man on a family a couple weekends ago. 

“When they had the incident at the Civic Center with a guy beating a family with a hockey stick, not every homeless person is the same. Everybody’s story is different. Not everybody is like that, you know, I’m not saying that there’s nobody like that. But a lot of us aren’t, we just need that extra push. We need that chance that was never given,” he said. 

Every Saturday, Recovery All Ways hosts outreach events where people can grab a warm meal, food to go, clothes and any supplies they may need. You can learn more about the organization by clicking here

You can also donate to help place individuals in motels and provide them with winter supplies. The GoFundMe can be found here.