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The lessons of Bayside: Clustering services for addicts and the homeless not the way to go

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The issues of homelessness, mental illness and drug use - and their symbiotic nature - are playing out all over the country.

So it should be no surprise this is happening here in Rochester.

When free services are rendered to vulnerable populations like those who are drug dependent, mentally or financially challenged or developmentally disabled, it's no stretch to understand why they flock to those resources.

To see what can become of a neighborhood in which services for these types of people are clustered, you need look no further that about an hour's drive north to Portland's Bayside neighborhood.

In Bayside, it isn't unusual to see scores of homeless folks and drug users grouped together on street corners daily. It's not unusual to see individuals engaging in sex acts in broad daylight. It's not unusual to see folks sleeping or shooting up in doorways or right on the street.

Does this sound like Rochester near the First Congregational Church and the city's public library?

It may be on a smaller scale, but the answer is yes if you believe a group of petitioners who last week urged the city to find a new home for the SOS Recovery Center which is housed in the church.

The writers of the petition also accuse the church of allowing homeless individuals to stay there. Church officials have been unavailable for comment since The Rochester Voice began reaching out Thursday.

Bayside, a section near downtown Portland, has always had a roughness to it, but for several years now it has also been the home to the Preble Street Resource Center and Oxford Street Shelter that are located just a couple of blocks apart. And it's gotten a lot worse.

The Oxford Street homeless shelter at Bayside is what is known as a low-threshold facility: few rules or guidelines and populated increasingly with people that are from out of town, according to a recent story in the Portland Press Herald.

Now there's one fact you can be sure of. The people that use the Rochester SOS Recovery Center are there because they want to kick their habit.

But that is easier said than done as everyone knows. Many try and fail, try and fail and try again.

Rochester is a compassionate town with compassionate people, but what Bayside teaches us is that when you cluster resources like soup kitchens, low-threshold shelters and other resources - including recovery centers - it can be counterproductive to the neighborhood and even those trying to get off drugs.

When I stopped smoking - and trust me I stopped many, many times before I was successful - that last thing I wanted to see was someone lighting up and enjoying a smoke.

Now imagine being a heroin or fentanyl addict struggling to stay clean one day at a time and constantly seeing an old buddy or even a complete stranger getting high in some alley or bragging about the good "stuff" they got.

Having addicts and those trying to break their addiction in close proximity is not the road to recovery.

There are lessons to be learned from Bayside right here in Rochester.

Here's what works.

Homeless shelter with tight rules, with jobs and training programs, with counseling and accountability.

And recovery centers with consistent and firm guidance and support and accountability on both sides.

As Rochester navigates its way through the current issue with the petition and looking forward to the possibility of more permanent homeless shelters in the future, the nightmare in Bayside cannot be overlooked.

One thing we do know. We don't want a Bayside.

- HT

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