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From homeless to hopeful: How this ESL Jefferson Award winner uses his hardships to help others

Deanna Dewberry
Updated: April 30, 2020 08:51 PM
Created: April 30, 2020 06:00 PM

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — You may pass them without thinking - the man holding a sign on the street corner, or the woman sitting outside a convenience store.  

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, on any given night, 835 homeless men and women are on the streets of Rochester. For Michael Gill, they aren't numbers. They are our neighbors, and while homeless, they're not hopeless. 

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Gill is a winner of this year's ESL Jefferson Award.  

When you ask Gill why he spends 80 hours a week helping Rochester's homeless community, he simply says, "I do it because I can."

But in truth, his call to serve springs from a place of profound pain.

Life lessons were learned, and Agnes was a cruel teacher. She showed him that homelessness might be just one storm or one job loss away. That's what happened in 2011. After almost 20 years on the clerical staff at the School of the Arts, he was laid off.

"At my age, the only skill I had was 20 years as a receptionist," Gill said. "No one was hiring a 57-year-old receptionist."

Unemployed and destitute, Gill’s fate would have been sealed were it not for the generosity of a friend. So, when he sees those forced to live in Peace Village, a homeless encampment on Industrial Street in Rochester, Gill thinks, "There but by the grace of God go I."

"When I was a teenager, my house was destroyed in a flood, Hurricane Agnes in 1972, and half the town of Corning was wiped out,” Gill said.

He says helping the homeless is his calling, but it all began seemingly by happenstance.  

"When I saw the destruction of the camp on South Avenue, I went to see what it was all about,” Gill said.

That was December 2014. It was then that Michael Gill dedicated his life to serving those that society forgot.

"I started a Facebook group called Homes 4 the Homeless," Gill said.

Through that page, he's able to essentially coordinate volunteer efforts. He's at the Peace Village Encampment every day, guiding the work of social workers, non-profits groups, and the generous members of his Facebook group who bring bottled water and daily meals.

"We have dinner brought in every night by a different group that provides a meal that they would feed their own family, letting these people know that some...somebody cares," Gill said quietly, his voice cracking with emotion.

His ultimate goal is to help all at the encampment find a roof a permanent home, but until there's no longer a need for a tent pitched in a gravel lot, he asks that others join his mission. By giving help, he believes all will gain understanding.  

"People that come out here with donations find out that these are people too," Gill said. 

Visit the Homes 4 Homeless Facebook page to learn more about Gill's mission. 


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