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ROCHESTER — More than 100 people packed City Hall on Tuesday night in response to a 64-signature community petition requesting City Council force SOS Recovery Community Organization to relocate its center from the church of a basement on South Main Street.
From individuals who say they’d be dead or that the city’s opioid problem would be worse without the center, to petitioners who feel SOS and the church are directly enabling criminal activity that is endangering downtown, councilors heard impassioned remarks from 20 individuals during a 90-minute public comment session.
Two individuals spoke in support of the petition, 15 people spoke in defense of SOS, and three expressed concerns about downtown without directly attributing SOS or the church as a contributing factor. Each group of speakers drew applause from the standing-room-only crowd at various points, eventually leading Mayor Caroline McCarley at one point to request that attendees refrain from applauding.
Ultimately, City Council took no action on the request, which some local leaders have deemed an attack on recovery services and a dehumanization of vulnerable community members. Councilors didn’t take any action because they already unanimously voted to deny the petition during their last meeting on July 10, doing so on the grounds that the city has no legal authority to force a private entity to relocate.
Members of the recovery community present Tuesday, many of whom wore black SOS shirts, say the petition’s denial is but a small victory because significant work needs to be done to increase supports and access to services for those who need it. One key step in that process, they say, is to show the petitioners and the greater community that they can take a more direct role in ending the stigma and other factors hurting those efforts.
“We have a choice to make — we can help people or we can step over them and ignore them like they don’t exist and they aren’t human beings,” said Joe Hannon, an SOS peer recovery coach, former state representative and an individual in recovery. “They are human beings and that’s why we’re here… I just think that people need to open their hearts and not just their minds that anyone they see on the street is a human being that could use your help. It could just be a friendly word… We need people to say, “Hello, how are you?′ and mean it.”
The petition alleges drug activity, discarded needles, fights involving deadly weapons, excessive after-hours noise and sexual activity have increased in the area surrounding SOS since the nonprofit agency opened its center inside First Church Congregational’s basement in fall 2016. The petition directly attributes some of these issues to SOS and the church, and claims they have encouraged people from outside Rochester to “come and live” on the property.
Karen Watkins, the Congress Street resident who created the petition, and a resident who identified himself only as a 67-year-old man named Andrew, were the only individuals to speak in support of the petition Wednesday. Andrew told councilors he feels SOS and the church are “enablers” of criminal activity.
“The citizens are out there concerned,” said Andrew, who described himself as someone who has experimented with substances in the past. “They want to see something done. They want to feel safe in their streets, in their businesses and in their homes. I don’t think it’s too much to ask at all, and City Council needs to address it, not hide from it. I shouldn’t be seeing repeated drug use 100 yards from the police station. And why? There are no consequences.”
SOS Executive Director John Burns, employees of SOS and representatives of First Church Congregational all heavily refuted the claims made by the petition and speakers like Andrew. They said Rochester’s issues are the same issues facing communities throughout the state and country. They also said the issues predate SOS and that the reason why SOS chose South Main Street is because of the number people in downtown who would benefit from recovery and peer support services.
After the meeting, Rochester Police Chief Paul Toussaint emphasized SOS and the church are “not the problem.”