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City official responds to pleas to protect homeless

By Randy Kraft, WFMZ.com Reporter, RKraft@wfmz.com
Published On: Jan 21 2014 07:19:25 PM CST
Updated On: Jan 22 2014 08:30:56 AM CST
Allentown shelters deal with problems brought on by cold

As biting winds and frigid temperatures invade Allentown, more and more homeless people are seeking warmth and safety inside a shelter.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

City managing director Francis Dougherty maintains Allentown has enough emergency housing to protect the homeless from winter's wrath.

But advocates for the city's homeless, who worry that winter's cold and snow will claim lives, do not agree.

Reacting to pleas that Allentown immediately should provide more shelter for homeless people in the city, on Tuesday Dougherty has issued "an official administration response" to comments made by advocates for the homeless at the Jan. 15 City Council meeting. 

He stated the chief issue raised was whether there are enough shelters for the homeless in the city. His memo indicates there are.

If that is true, why are people sleeping on the floor inside an Allentown church, which has to turn people away because it gets too crowded, asked Dale Smith, an advocate for the city's homeless who reviewed Dougherty's memo.

Smith said he is disappointed with the response from the administration of Mayor Ed Pawlowski, and not only because the city does not have enough emergency shelters.

He said the administration has made no effort to collaboratively hammer out a solution with advocates who presented the problem to City Council last week.

"It's a shame that the resources of the city cannot be brought to bear to help its citizens," said Smith.

He said the administration is missing the point regarding the need to help people in the city now. Homeless advocates at the council meeting insisted something should be done immediately to protect homeless people from dangerously low winter temperatures.

"The idea is not just to get people out of the cold," maintained Dougherty. "It is to get them on a path to permanent housing, which requires case management from experience professionals."

Smith said he completely agrees with that goal, but indicated it does not address the immediate problem.

The administration "supports the relaxation of certain in-house protocols within the shelter community to provide a warm space during extreme cold for those individuals who choose not to participate in the case management system," wrote Dougherty.

"However, we cannot support and will not support totally unregulated environments, which not only pose a threat to the homeless themselves but also can pose a health concern for all our residents."

On the coldest nights this winter, as many as 40-50 homeless people have taken shelter at Safe Haven, a refuge without beds in the parish hall of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church at 38 S. Eighth St. in the city.

Safe Haven has been so busy on very cold nights that some people have been turned away. Homeless people sleep right next to each other on the floor, on provided only with yoga mats and blankets.

Wrote Dougherty: "The advocates for little or no regulation point to Safe Haven as their model. It is in fact confirmed that more homeless are flocking to Safe Haven than ever before. Indeed, we know now that homeless from other municipalities are now seeking to come to Allentown and Safe Haven precisely because there are no rules and regulations."

Smith disagreed. He said homeless advocates believe any shelter needs supervision. He said one of the problems at Safe Haven is the homeless are left to manage themselves. "We agree there need to be rules," said Smith. "Safe Haven is just not the best place. It's a spot to sleep on the floor."

Smith also said some homeless people in Allentown have managed to get to Bethlehem, which he says does provide a network of emergency shelters for the homeless.

Bethlehem Emergency Sheltering is a network of overnight shelters,with cots and breakfast, for the homeless during the coldest months of the year.Churches in the city serve as sheltering sites on a rotating basis.

Dougherty indicated that on the same nights Save Haven has been full, the Allentown Rescue Mission was not at capacity and had available beds.

He said the Rescue Mission has been willing to relax its rules during the most severe weather, except for one:  the requirement that those staying at the Rescue Mission must receive a voucher from the Allentown Police Department verifying they have no outstanding warrants.

Dougherty also said the Salvation Army has allowed seven extra people to stay in its lobby during severe weather. "Four women had called ahead and three were walk-ins," reported the managing director. "No one was turned away."

But Smith said the Rescue Mission only takes men and the Salvation Army only takes women. He said the Sixth Street Shelter takes families, but has a long waiting list.

He said Allentown has no emergency shelters for couples and families.

Dougherty said Heidi Baer, the city's liaison to the City's Commission to End Chronic Homelessness, determined that "collectively" beds in other places could have been used by people who stayed at Safe Haven.

Responded Smith: "If that's the case, why are people sleeping on the floor at Safe Haven?"

Dougherty also defended that commission -- although homeless advocate Diane Teti, who serves on it, said it has "no teeth or clout" to provide emergency shelter to the homeless. Smith said he chairs that commission's subcommittee on seasonal sheltering.

Dougherty said last year the city invested $185,000 to assist the commission and will continue to support it as best it can.

Wrote the managing director:  "The administration supports the Commission to End Chronic Homelessness' own advocacy for a regulated environment where certified case workers and experts are there to provide for the full continuum of care needed towards the ultimate goal of ending homelessness and finding permanent housing."

Smith said the pleas for Allentown to do more for the homeless are not coming from "a competing interest group at odds with the methods of the commission," as Dougherty maintained in his memo.

When founded in 2007, Smith said the commission's goal was to find housing for 150 homeless people by 2017. "We're not even halfway there yet."

Dougherty said that organization is in the process of following up with speakers who offered shelter assistance at the City Council meeting.

One of those speakers was Robert Smith, president of the Allentown School Board. He told council he would speak with Dr. Russell Mayo, superintendent of the Allentown School District, to immediately do something about the homeless issue by opening schools.

At that City Council meeting, Council president Julio Guridy suggested the city work to find an emergency solution “over the next couple of days.” He asked Dougherty to lead the effort to find an appropriate shelter.

The only action homeless advocates have seen was council member Cynthia Mota visited Safe Haven one night last week.