This weekend will be a joyous one for St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality. Celebrating its 75th anniversary, St. Joe’s will be alive with fellowship, meals, memories, gospel music and dancing. Martha Hennessy, the granddaughter Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker, will be in town from Vermont. Along with Father Larry Tracy, Father Bob Wirth — who I am told is quite a hoot — will be celebrating Mass in the parking lot under the tent.
Today, the weekend began on a somber note reminding us of the challenges faced when serving the homeless. From about 9-10:30am, about 50 people — a mix of homeless people, providers and church activists — joined in a Homeless March from the St. Joe’s Parking lot to a protest rally in Washington Square Park.
Passing a few places where people experiencing homelessness sleep, the march and rally raised awareness about both the plight of the homeless and what is being done to help.
The event was also the occasion to remember a man only known as Tanny — and the other Tanny’s still living as Tanny once did.
As explained to me by Andrew Carey (who you’ve met before) and Nicholas Coulter (who you’ve met before), a few years ago a man evicted from his apartment took up refugee in the wooded area behind the Rochester Psychiatric Center on Elwood Avenue. Living in a small tent, the man remained hidden for perhaps two years. People in the human services community had heard vague rumors about Tanny’s existence, but next to nothing was known beyond his name.In June 2015, Tanny was found dead, much of his life still a mystery. After his death, Tanny’s meager belongings were left in his encampment. This morning before the march, James Murphy and a few others retrieved what was left of Tanny’s possessions. The items were placed in a coffin, carried from St. Joe’s to Washington Square Park.
At the rally Tanny was remembered as speakers discussed homelessness in general, protesting against social conditions like poverty and discrimination that leave a sizable proportion of our population always at risk for homelessness.
As Nick and I talked, he noted the irony that Tanny lived in his isolated tent right in an area surrounded by social service organizations like the RPC, the Veteran’s Administration and Department of Human Services offices on Westfall, and the Al Sigl Center just down the road on Elmwood.
Instead, for Nick, Tanny represents some of the most challenging cases of homelessness, of which Tanny was one of many in the Rochester area. The message is that people like Tanny need to be actively sought out. We — providers like Nick and Andy and the whole community — can’t sit back waiting for people like Tanny to find help. We need to find them.
Nick knows that Tanny faced severe obstacles, like many homeless who have fallen through the cracks in the system. Remembering Tanny reminds us that reaching out to those most alone is both our hardest duty and highest reward.
I also spoke with Pastor Jeannine Zona, a lay leader at The Pillar church across the from St. Joes. Jeannine says one of her church’s missions is to build friendships and provide spiritual care to people living at St. Joe’s. Jeannine praised St. Joe’s for its shelter-first model. Along with offering meals and services, St. Joe’s goals is for clients to make St. Joe’s their official address, their actual home. For example, without an address, homeless people can’t get jobs. As Jeannine says, having a home — not a tent in the woods off Elmwood Ave — is the first step to getting back on one’s feet.
On the march, I met Thomas and Crystal. They had seen the marchers on South Avenue. When they heard what the event was all about, Thomas, Crystal and new family member joined in. Near Washington Square Park, some construction workers wondered who the marchers were. When I explained, they nodded in approval, saying at some point in their lives, everybody needs some help.
Below is a video Nick took recently of Tanny’s possessions that had lain in the woods for over a year.