Sanctuary Village, the early days of an urban homeless encampment on a mission

Sanctuary Village under the Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass Bridge

On any given night in Monroe County, people are forced to create hidden makeshift beds in darkened parking garages, abandoned subway tunnels, the corner of church steps, the underpass of bridges, forests and parks, and anywhere else they can find a little warmth and softness. I have been told that even three sheets of cardboard can make the difference between sleep and no sleep.

Jan Schakowsky once said, “There is a lot that happens around the world we cannot control. We cannot stop earthquakes, we cannot prevent droughts, and we cannot prevent all conflict, but when we know where the hungry, the homeless and the sick exist, then we can help.”

This is why Sanctuary Village began. Initially advocates and homeless individuals rallied together to call for a Homeless Bill of Rights. A few years ago the demand for a HBR was actually sweeping across the country. It started as a coalition of more than 125 social justice groups that came together with lawyers and people living on the streets and had become a major statement of human rights that state legislators could address through social policy.

The bill aims to ensure that homeless people can move freely and sleep in public spaces, sleep in a parked vehicle, eat and exchange food in public, obtain legal counsel, gain access to hygiene facilities at any time of day and, if in criminal prosecution, be able to use “necessity defense”  which asserts a defendant had no choice but to break the law.

Times have changed. Sanctuary Village was disbanded. It then moved on to other locations, morphed into other types of homeless communities, and is now basically gone. But the need for a Homeless Bill of Rights has never gone away. The fight continues. The Village is gone but the mission goes on.



Photo by George Payne

Broken Spear Interview about homelessness in Rochester with Dr. Rev. Peter Peters


Speeches in Washington Square Park


Advocates setting up Sanctuary Village in Washington Square Park


Going inside is something that the vast majority of us happily take for granted all day long. We can easily go inside Starbucks to buy a cup of coffee without causing an “incident”. We can go inside buses and trains without being stared at with nasty looks. We can go inside bedrooms and bathrooms without feeling like an animal on a leash. We can go into stores without being judged by merchants and customers alike. And we can go inside hospitals and other emergency facilities without being treated like a costly statistic.


Photo by George Payne


According to the Catholic Family Center the number of children staying at the agency’s two women’s homeless shelters is increasing at an alarming rate. The CFC says the organization is currently serving nearly 75 children every night. The children range in age from newborn to 17 years old.


Photo by George Payne


Photo by George Payne


Homelessness is directly related to the lack of active involvement from those who have homes but do not care enough about those who don’t.



Photo by George Payne


Inspired anti poverty activist Cheri Honkala at Sanctuary Village 











Main food and supply tent




Just as imprisoning debtors and drowning the mentally ill have become ugly scenes from an uncivilized chapter in our human story, we should end the criminalization of homelessness.


Photo by George Payne


Photo by George Payne


What this world needs desperately is more doors pried open by the force of radical compassion. Too many people encounter the steel gates of closed businesses, locked cages around altars in churches, and boarded up houses.


George Payne at State Capital in Albany

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