Price of Freedom
Published on: Mar 4, 2016
Transcripts - Price of Freedom
56 POST | Issue 4 March / April 2014
Senior Editor Mary Stone spent
some time with a handful of
homeless people in our city in
an attempt to understand
what they are going through.
The truth she found was
The Price Of
by Mary Stone
Issue 4 March / April 2014 | POST 57
Men, mainly, dressed in sweatshirts and coats soaked from rain,
carrying sleeping bags or shopping bags, loiter in a stairwell on their way
to the garage below.
At the bottom of the stairs, my new friend Arleen Hodge, a
Rochester documentarian photographer, prepares me for a reality I’m
about to experience: homelessness.
She comes to the Civic Center Parking Garage on Exchange Street
often, in a rotation of a half a dozen other public city locations where
people can go to escape the brunt of the elements. Originally, her visits
were to document homelessness with her photography. Now, she says, they
are more for company; for helping her put reality back into perspective.
That process already is happening to me. My hands are cold. My
neck too, I think, as I immediately chastise myself for a sensation—a
reality—that is unrelenting for this subterranean community. I am
not scared or intimidated, as I often am for interviews. Instead I am
ashamed: of my weather-appropriate apparel, of the way I shiver when
it’s not even December.
Out of the wind and absorbed in conversation, I start to forget the
cold. One of a precious few, out of a dozen and a half men there that
night, is willing to tell me his story. Wolf is sitting on the curb of the
garage a few yards from the entrance, with few belongings apart from a
sleeping bag. People like him are scattered, alone or in groups of no more
than four, along the perimeter of the garage—some in the dark recesses,
others here in the light.
Wolf goes by his last name, which also happens to denote his
attitude, I’m told. Under the influence, Wolf reacts violently to
confrontation of any sort, Arleen explains. It gets him into an average of
six fights a week, he tells me. Sometimes, however, it’s unprovoked, when
he’s sleeping, for example, and someone tries to steal his things.
Theft is common, the men tell me. That’s why it doesn’t do any good
to have anything new: boots, electronics, gear to protect them from the
cold. Unless they can sleep on top of it, they will wake to find it gone.
Wolf is 53, but he looks at least 70. He is gaunt, but hot-blooded and
ready to disagree. I listen to his story, and think how it sounds romantic:
a combination of John Updike and Jack Kerouac.
Wolf tells me about a woman—Cora—who broke his heart. He was
42 then, and she was sleeping with his friend. The devastation, which
still brings him to tears, set him on a vagabond life, a cross-country
adventure, where he worked as a mechanic, a hardware salesman, a tow
truck operator. He went wherever there was work, he says, until two
DWIs within two weeks cost him his license and his job.
He was in Baltimore at the time. His sister paid to bring him back
to Western New York, where Wolf settled in Rochester. He has been
n a November night, in the stinging
wind and slanted rain, hockey specta-
tors file out of Blue Cross Arena and
down Exchange Street bundled and huddled
together for the walk to their cars and the
eventual drive home. Underneath them, in
the parking garage across the street, another
Fred (left) and Joe (right) often prefer a winter
night on the pavement in the County Civic Center
parking garage to a bed in a local shelter for the
freedom from authority it allows them.
58 POST | Issue 4 March / April 2014
homeless for eight years, the last two of which
have been in the parking garage.
As fearless as Wolf seems, even he admits
it is dangerous. He often wakes to being
kicked for nothing more than someone’s sick
Hubert Wilkerson, a local activist for the
homeless and shelter worker, says that kind of
violence, after a hockey game, for example, is
common in that neighborhood.
“Some of the people coming from Blue
Cross Arena go to kick some of the guys. Just get
violent on them for no reason,”Wilkerson says.
When I ask Wolf why he doesn’t sleep
in a shelter, he says because of curfews—and
bedbugs. He wasn’t alone. Four out of four
men I spoke to cited bedbugs as their reason
for sleeping in the garage instead of a shelter.
Wilkerson, who is known at city shelters
for placing people in showers and closets
wherever there is space when no beds are left,
says bedbugs are rampant, yes, but there are
bigger problems shelters face. Bedbugs, as
real as they are, he says, are just an excuse
homeless people use.
“When you go to the garage, a lot of those
guys have mental health issues on the severe
side. A lot of them are alcoholics. They really
don’t like the shelter situation, which I can
understand, because when I was homeless I
didn’t like it either,” Wilkerson says.
Wilkerson spent some time homeless
after being shot in 2005 and losing one eye.
He said it was due to a group of people and
organizations that he was able to get back
on his feet.
Many homeless people want to come and
go as they please, to do their drugs, if they
want, he says. They don’t have to be sober
to sleep in a parking garage. And for that
independence they’re willing to brave violence,
theft, the cold and more.
“Bedbugs is an excuse. In a garage, you’re
dealing with everything: there are rats running
around, mice, lice, etc., etc. No!” Wilkerson
says. “It’s to have their freedom.”
Wolf says he is an alcoholic, but not
exclusively. One of his main concerns, and the
primary obstacle, he says, to getting back on
his feet is a crack debt he still owes. He’s been
paying it off in small installments from the
$540 a month he receives from his pension
and money he gets panhandling.
“I struggle to survive every day, in every
way I can. I panhandle. I get a sign. That’s
how I get food,” he says.
After he pays his debt, Wolf wants to
move to Florida. Until then, he says, he
survives the hardest moments with the odd
phone call to his daughters. Both live in
Colorado, and speak to him only when Wolf
can get his hands on a phone.
Hodge says connecting with people like
Wolf has helped her in her own life.
Hodge moved to Rochester from New
York City. Looking to make a name for
herself in photography, she sought a niche:
documenting homelessness in Rochester. She
recalls packing a wool blanket and finding a
group of homeless people at an encampment
by the railroad tracks. She gained their trust
and they even more quickly gained hers.
Hodge and others talk about the
vulnerability of the people here. I realize it
is because they are vulnerable that they are
so immediately relatable, despite their very
different stories. The state of suffering seems
to bring their souls to the surface in a way
that instantly is very beautiful but also in
extreme contrast to the odor of excrement,
urine and other harsh material reminders of
Hodge, personally, was strengthened by
her experience with the homeless.
“I had a daughter who died. I know
suffering. Or, I thought I did,” Hodge says.
“I didn’t start healing until I stepped into the
world of true suffering.”
She recalls a night at the encampment,
when a homeless woman in her 20s
suffering from multiple sclerosis fell from
her wheelchair trying to reach the top of the
encampment. It took some time for Hodge
or anyone else to notice. When they did, she
was face down in the mud, her diaper full of
In the years since then, the young woman
has since found the help she needs through
an assisted-living apartment on East Avenue,
Hodge says. Her story turned out well, but
that’s not usually the case, she says.
“In this place, there’s mental illness;
“PEOPLE THINK THIS
IS THE LAST STOP,
BUT IT’S NOT. YOU
DON’T HAVE TO BE
HERE FOR THAT. THE
LAST STOP IS WHEN
YOUR FAMILY DON’T
WANT YOU NO MORE.
THAT’S WHEN YOU’RE
DOWN ON YOUR
LUCK: WHEN THEY
SAY, ‘FUCK IT.
Issue 4 March / April 2014 | POST 59
there’s addiction, yes. But for this girl it was
MS. Some people just find themselves with a
problem they weren’t prepared for. In her case,
she needed help, and there was no one, no
family who could deal. That’s the reality.”
In the parking garage, everyone I speak
to says that despite the bedbugs and the rules,
ultimately it is their own choice not to be in a
shelter, and they assume the consequences.
A man named Ernie tells me this. “There
is no reason to be hungry in Rochester. There
is no reason to be homeless. It is a choice,”
he says. Ernie is dressed nicely, in a plaid
blue shirt, with an apparently warm jacket
and boots. He tells me he has a phone with
Internet, but he doesn’t have a place to live,
and that’s his choice.
As we are talking I notice a young man
wearing a red hoodie. I noticed him during
my conversation with Wolf swoop in briefly
to find out what I was there for. He scooped
up the box of sandwiches I brought and took
them to his friends.
When we make eye contact, he walks
away in a loop, like he’s riding a bicycle.
I sit down to talk to someone else Hodge
said was willing to talk. He is lying partly in a
wet sleeping bag, with his back leaning against
the parking garage wall. Like Ernie, he says he
accepts the choices he makes.
His name is Elijah. No more than 25,
his skin is smooth and perfectly poreless. He
He speaks to me reluctantly, and without
revealing any details about his personal story,
he talks about Jesus.
He tells me he is not worried; he is not
afraid of anything. He grew up going to
church. He has Jesus in his heart.
He talks with a kind of pity about the
people outside who appear not to have the
same inner peace.
When he realizes, however, that my
recorder is taping our conversation, he
becomes angry. He tells me I am exploiting
him. Overcome with shame, I realize I had left
my recorder on from the last interview. Before
I realize, let alone explain, Elijah has shut
down. He pulls his hoodie over his eyes and
tightens the strings. I am dismissed.
I make some stupid excuses and
apologize. I feel like I’ve wounded an
already wounded child.
I turn around, a little dizzy from the
conversation, and find Fred, who is more
than willing to talk. Behind him, I notice, the
teenager in the red hoodie, who presumably
also is willing to talk—just not yet willing
enough to overcome his fear.
Fred tells me that the people in the garage,
as different as they seem, are a community.
“We help each other out. People share
down here. Everybody’s in the same boat. It’s
not like a club: It’s a family,” Fred says. He’s
talking fast; he’s excited. Five or six people
gather around us to listen.
“We can sleep here until 6:00. I’m the first
one up, so I make sure everyone gets up and
out. People go, some of them go to St. Joseph’s
to wash clothes, take a shower.”
Surviving, especially in the cold months,
requires a lot of work. The men tell me their
days are full before they return here to sleep.
“I tell people, ‘Don’t sleep like you’re on
vacation because somebody’s going to come
through here from outside,’” Fred says.
It’s a hard life, but it’s not the worst there
is, Fred says. “People think this is the last stop,
but it’s not. You don’t have to be here for that.
The last stop is when your family don’t want
you no more. That’s when you’re down on
your luck: When they say, ‘Fuck it. I’m done.’”
Fred is talking excitedly when he notices
one of the men behind us laughing at him.
He shuts down for a moment, his face turns
down, and I turn to glare at the old man they
call Santa (for his white beard). Fred starts
talking again but with more reserve.
“They’ve got all of these empty buildings
in the city. Why don’t they open them up to
the homeless?” Fred asks. “The people who
work there would do it to keep their bed. If
they don’t work, they get kicked out. Half the
people here get checks, and half of them drink
it away, half of them smoke crack.”
Let them work for their housing was
his point. And apart from the insurance
considerations, the idea seemed to me to make
Wilkerson, the shelter employee I later
spoke to, told me this is a solution he has
longed for, and one he promotes constantly at
city and church meetings.
“I believe in housing first,” Wilkerson
says, referring to a term in social services
for moving people directly into their own
apartment, instead of transitioning through
various stages of housing.
“We have more abandoned houses in this
city than we do homeless people,” he says.
“A lot of these people have talents. If you
can allow sweat equity, allow these guys to
rehabilitate, renovate these houses, rebuild
them and start opening some of them up, we
can start eliminating this problem.”
The alternative, he says, is just recycling
the same people. Wilkerson insists, from
his experience helping the homeless, that
independent housing allows people to bounce
“I’m proof of that because I bounced
back,” he says.
Wilkerson helps supervise men at a wet
house on South Avenue Located across from a
soup kitchen and shelter, the wet house allows
people who are still drug- or alcohol-dependent
to stay in apartments at little to no cost.
The house is a project launched this year
by St. Mary’s Church, St. Joseph’s House of
Hospitality and House of Mercy.
Michael Boucher, a social worker at St.
Joseph’s Neighborhood Center—a medical
and mental health center for people without
insurance—says the idea of converting
abandoned houses into housing for the
homeless is brilliant.
“(It) would need to be safe, obviously,
but there are models from around the country
that support this idea,” Boucher says. “I doubt
that it would take a lot of capital to initiate.
‘Supervision’ becomes an issue, I think. I can’t
see a lot of taxpayers being OK with wet
houses (where people are allowed to go if they
are not drug and alcohol free).”
This has already been an issue with
social services, Boucher says. For that reason
people are required to answer questions about
substances use and seek treatment in order to
get public funds.
“So for me the idea is a good one but
complicated. (It) underscores the point,
however, that in every major metropolitan
area there is more housing than there are
people—abandoned or otherwise,” Boucher
says. “It is a lot like the issue of hunger: There
is plenty of food worldwide to feed everyone.
It is a matter of political will to make sure
that it happens. “All that said,” he adds, “I do
think that there are ways that the city could
creatively use its abandoned housing stock for
people who are homeless.”
Something needs to happen, Wilkerson
says, because there are too few beds at shelters
to accommodate people.
City shelters, bedbugs or not, he says, are
full most winter nights.
“Even when you call social services after-
hours, they’ll tell you they’re full. They have
no rooms to place anybody. I will say, ‘What
do you want me to do with these people?
They hang up on me,” Wilkerson says. “I try
60 POST | Issue 4 March/ April 2014
to stash them somewhere. I put them in the
shower, the bathroom. I would get admonished
by the shelters themselves. They tell me I can’t
do this. I tell them, ‘These are human beings
we’re talking about.’”
Rochester already is emphasizing housing
first among other aggressive approaches
toward permanent housing, such as rapid
rehousing and permanent supportive housing,
following new goals initiated by the Federal
Strategic Plan to End Homelessness and the
Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid
Transition to Housing Act.
In response to new federal goals, the city
commissioned a homeless needs study that
included two national experts brought in
to evaluate the effectiveness of Rochester’s
response to homelessness.
Carrie Michel-Wynne, director of housing
at YWCA of Rochester and Monroe County,
is on the steering committee for the Homeless
Services Network, a group of 70 people that
meets monthly to find better methods for
easing homelessness. Wynne serves in various
other organizations such as the Rochester/
Monroe County Continuum of Care advisory
She says she was encouraged by the study
“It is true that many of the shelters run
at capacity but what is exciting is that our
community has been working very diligently to
alleviate the need for hotel placements (which
is where homeless individuals are placed when
shelters are full),” Michel-Wynne says.
“First, it was noted that we have a very
low street homeless problem compared to
cities of similar size. We also do an excellent
job at getting people out of a homeless
situation when they are homeless,” she adds.
“Our average length of stay is about 14-16
days whereas in some communities people
stay homeless for a year or more.”
By adjusting the prevailing philosophy,
she says, the problem of hotel placements
could be solved within Rochester’s existing
shelter system. Those changes would include,
for example, coordinated access, so that all
shelters screen and prioritize people the same
way, Michel-Wynne explains.
“Individuals with minimal needs might
only need short-term assistance,” she says.
“We have a very dedicated task force,
developed by the Rochester/Monroe County
Homeless Continuum of Care team, and
comprised of more than 20 agency providers,
advocates and former consumers. All of our
work is being steered by the recommendations
of the experts that came to Rochester.”
One measure, she says, is diversion.
Helping people out financially in very targeted
ways. An expert from Cleveland is slated to
train local providers on the technique.
“(Diversion) essentially means that we
will use mediation techniques and minimal
cash resources to keep an individual in their
current living situation. For example, if a
youth has run away from home, a trained
counselor might bring the family together to
identify solutions so the child can go home or
to a safe relative.
“Another example might be that a person
fell ill and as a result fell behind on rent. The
landlord might be apt to evict the person but
with good mediation and short-term cash
assistance, we may be able to convince the
landlord to keep the tenant.”
“THEY’VE GOT ALL
OF THESE EMPTY
BUILDINGS IN THE
CITY. WHY DON’T
THEY OPEN THEM UP
TO THE HOMELESS?”
“I TRY TO
FOR IDEAS AND
BECAUSE I WAS
BORN IN 1954,
THEN, AND TODAY IT’S
STILL IN THE
Local homeless activist and
shelter worker, Hubert Wilkerson.
Issue 4 March/April 2014 | POST 61
People who stay in garages and other
public places, Michel-Wynne says, are people
who don’t want to deal with rules. Federal
legislation requires some screening and
qualification before they can receive benefits.
“Significant outreach and planning
has gone into addressing the needs of this
population,” Michel-Wynne says. “We have
prioritized shelter plus vouchers for this
population and some have taken advantage
of it. Others refuse to go through the process
and we have even found ways to minimize the
Shelters, she says, have to have rules to
protect people. Even so, many shelters are
willing to accommodate people under the
influence or people who have unaddressed
mental health problems, so long as they can
keep the rest of the population safe.
Michel-Wynne says using abandoned
houses to house people presents code
violations. In many cases, they are unsafe for
people to renovate. Plus, she says, renovating
a house requires planning, commitment and
engagement, which generally are difficult for
the homeless population.
“The individuals that refuse to go to
organizations are often those that are not
likely to commit to fixing up a home. Most
of these folks have a difficult time with
relationships. Putting a few people in an
abandoned home and expecting them to
work together to restore the home is highly
unlikely,” she says.
Ideally, there should be wet houses,
Michel-Wynne says, but agencies won’t take
the risk for the liability it represents.
However, she says, some new affordable-
housing projects are developing an open-
air concept. She says: “Individuals with
significant risk factors can go into housing but
still have the option of sleeping outside if they
want. The design includes a safe outdoor spot
for people to sleep if they so choose.”
Wilkerson, however, is less optimistic than
Michel-Wynne but still hopeful.
He says, “I think this is my calling, to
work with the homeless to work with mental
illness, because I have mental health issues
myself. I think this is where I should be. I try
to encourage people everywhere for ideas
and support because I was born in 1954, and
Rochester was a high-poverty city then, and
today it’s still in the top 10.”
This is what I call a one-horse town.
You can walk the length of it in a couple
of hours, and it’s still in poverty. They have
administration after administration that come
out with these 10-year, 15-year plans. We need
immediate help. We need plans for today.
Indeed. In December, a report found
Rochester to be the fifth poorest city in the
nation, according to the Rochester Area
Community Foundation and ACT Rochester
The ranking was against the 75 largest U.S.
metropolitan areas. Among comparably
sized cities, Rochester ranks second, mainly
for its extreme concentration of poverty
within the city.
It infuriates Wilkerson, who advises
people who want to help financially to give
to shelters directly. The House of Mercy, for
example, he says, is particularly dedicated to
And of course, he says, people should
give money to the people who need it, not
necessary some middle man who is going to
distribute it for them. Clothes, for example,
often get sold for funds that get distributed
to various programs.
People who take their clothes to the
Salvation Army, he says, don’t always realize
that homeless people have to buy them in
order to wear those donations. Wilkerson
says, if people want homeless people to get
their clothes for free, it’s generally better to
donate to churches instead.
At the parking garage, food is appreciated
and blankets and pillows too.
Leaving there, Red hoodie circled back.
The only thing he managed to say the whole
night was to ask if I had any books for him. I
told him I wish I had.
Walking up the stairs and out to my car,
I wasn’t cold at all, but I didn’t realize it at
the time. I was too dazzled by the soulful
beauty downstairs. The rawness of their
circumstances evoked such an immediate
connection—a recalibration of my own
view of the world—that I didn’t seem to feel
anything but happiness.
In my mind, on the drive home I saw
colors like jewels. It wasn’t until later,
warming up by the radiator and writing my
notes, that I made the connection with the
colors I saw, as I wrote their names: Wolf,
Ernie, Elijah, Fred, and Red.
For the sake of privacy, the full names of the
homeless men in this story were not included.
Data from the Homeless Management
Information System, which tracks the
prevalence of homelessness in Rochester
and Monroe County, showed that there
were 1,161 single homeless men and
693 homeless women here in 2011, and
only half as many available beds or
housing units. Total, there were 1,854
homeless single men and women three
years ago, and 998 places for them to
sleep. For families, there was slightly more
availability, according to the same 2011
statistics. That year, there were 640
homeless families with children in 2011
who had some 524 places to stay in
Rochester (including emergency
housing, transitional and permanent