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Allentown City Council grapples with how to help homeless

Published On: Feb 13 2014 07:18:20 AM EST
Allentown City Council 2-12-14

How many homeless people in Allentown need shelter but are not finding it on the snow- covered streets of the city?

As members of Allentown City Council began grappling with the issue of doing more to help the homeless Wednesday night, no one asked that key question to quantify the need and no one volunteered an answer.

Council did learn that only a few people have been using one of two shelters, referred as warming centers, which recently opened in the city.


After the meeting, one advocate for the homeless said hundreds of different people in the city need help through the winter.

"The homeless problem in Allentown is much bigger than any of us imagined and most of us wanted to admit," said Rev. Richard Baumann, pastor of St. Paul's Lutheran Church at 8th and Walnut streets.

Council member Joe Davis called the Wednesday night meeting of his community and economic development committee to learn more about the homeless issue, partly in response to homeless advocates appearing before City Council last month and asking the city to do more to help.

Baumann commended City Council for looking into the issue, saying: "We in our community never have paid attention to the large homeless population that we have."

Some progress has been made since that Jan. 15 meeting, including the opening of warming centers in the YMCA and Alliance Hall in the city.
They are open on different nights of the week, when Code Blue cold weather alerts are declared. Opening those shelters has taken some pressure off the overloaded Safe Haven in the basement of Baumann's church.

"We do have to continue the good work that has been done and expand it if possible, to see what else we can do to help the homeless" said Davis at the conclusion of the meeting, which was attended by six of the seven members of City Council.

More questions than answers seemed to be raised at the meeting, such as:

* Should emergency shelters open only when temperatures dip below 32
degrees or a major snowstorm is coming -- and officials declare a Code Blue -- or should they be open every night during winter months?

* Should it be the city's responsibility to do more to help homeless
people in Allentown or should that strictly be the job of non-profit human service agencies, churches and other organizations?

* Should Allentown take a more serious look at emulating the way
houses of worship in Bethlehem are helping the homeless with an emergency shelter network?

* Does Allentown need one full-fledged and staffed shelter that is
open every night and has beds, restrooms, perhaps even showers and a kitchen to feed those who stay there?

* Rather than just focusing on providing emergency shelters,
should more be done to try to end homelessness, by getting people into apartments, getting them jobs and getting them professional help to resolve whatever problems caused them to end up on the streets?

What is the goal?

"I'm not sure what the 'ask' is," Alan Jennings, executive director of the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley, told City Council during the meeting. "Do we want another homeless shelter? Is that what we're trying to get here?"

It was not clear at the meeting what entity will take the lead in coordinating the development of that undefined solution.

Council member Jeanette Eichenwald made it clear the city should spearhead whatever needs to be done.

"What concerns me is we'll leave here tonight and things will be status quo," said Eichenwald. "The time has come in the City of Allentown when the status quo is no longer acceptable. I think it is a city problem. Somebody has to take the lead."

She said "we should be able to figure out a system" where men, women and children are given shelter, food and casework. She said city officials should sit down with all agencies involved and figure out a way to do it. "If nothing is accomplished, we have failed."

"There is a clear public demand for these services," said council member Peter Schweyer.

"We've got to take a holistic approach on this," said council president Julio Guridy. "We've got to do more than just find them a place to sleep overnight."

But Guridy argued that any solution cannot be on the back of the city alone. He said Lehigh County, private donors and other agencies should help finance whatever solution is reached.

Schweyer suggested the city might be able to provide some funding if a budget is developed for an overall solution strategy. "We want to be a partner with this." He said costs range from blankets, cots or yoga mats to heating a building and personnel to staff a shelter.

Outside the meeting, Jennings estimated 30-40 people are out on the streets of Allentown on non-Code Blue nights.

Baumann said 325 different people stayed at Safe Haven in his church last year. He said some stayed only one night, but one person stayed
140 nights. He predicted Safe Haven again will shelter more than 300 different people this winter.

Jennings also commended City Council for responding to the challenge, saying many elected officials in this country "completely ignore this issue."

Conference of Churches

The Lehigh County Conference of Churches is trying to take the lead in evaluating on the need over the winter, through the different shelters and warming centers that are open, said Deanna Best, housing director at the conference.

She added: "And we want to take the lead on a plan for next year, so we have a plan ready to go."

Three weeks ago, the Conference of Churches opened a warming center in Alliance Hall on N. 6th Street. People can stay there Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.

Only one person per night stayed there during the first weekend, said Best, adding as more people found out it had opened, that number increased. She said seven people stayed there last Sunday night.

Best said the gym in Alliance Hall comfortably could accommodate 25 people, "if not more."

She said they get a bottle of water, a blanket and a place to stay, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., although they must leave by 6 a.m. on Mondays.

Asked by Eichenwald if the conference is considering opening Alliance Hall on weeknights, Best said the YMCA on 15th Street in the city now is open on weeknights.

Eichenwald said she appreciates what the YMCA is doing, but the hours the homeless can find shelter in the YMCA --10:30 p.m. to 5 a.m. - are problematic and an enormous concern.

"The hours are awkward for some of the people that need it," agreed Guridy.

"There is no system of organizing various faith-based buildings in the community?" asked Eichenwald. "It's cold."

"Not at this time," replied Best. "We're still evaluating the situation. It's cold, but there's still shelter space that's open"

Homeless men also can go to the Rescue Mission, women and children can go to the Salvation Army and anyone can go to Safe Haven at St.

During the meeting, the Code Blue polices of the Rescue Mission and Salvation Army to help the homeless also were shared with council members.

Eleana Belletieri of the Salvation Army told council it has not seen any real change in the number of people seeking emergency shelter this winter, despite the colder temperatures.

Safe Haven

"Safe Haven was never supposed to happen," Baumann told council. "It came about because people were sleeping on the benches around St.

"We're trying to deal with a population that other people would much rather just forget,"

He said many people have found "family" at Safe Haven, as well as safety and security.

The pastor said in its first year of operation, less than 10 people usually stayed in Safe Haven. He said the numbers doubled in the second year and remained "in the 20s" last year. He said when cold weather arrived this winter, they had as many as 42 people for the first time ever. He said that number has dropped back to 32 since the other two warming centers opened.

"Our numbers are still high, but they're not as high as they were a month ago." Those high numbers of people sleeping at Safe Haven are what spurred homeless advocates to tell City Council Allentown needs more shelters.

Baumann said some people "reluctantly" have gone from Safe Haven to the YMCA and Alliance Hall since they've opened to the homeless.

"Why would anybody want to go the YMCA?" he asked. "I don't want to talk about those other programs in terms of what they don't have. But none of the other ones have much more than we do. I wish there was a better place."

"We are trying to close Safe Haven, but it's open all day long because there's no place for people to go." He said it will remain open as long one person needs shelter.

Baumann said Safe Haven does not open or close based on a Code Blue cold weather warning, saying "that would be way too complicated." He said it is open from the end of November until the end of March.

The pastor said he looks forward to a real shelter for the homeless being created in Allentown. He told council: "We need to work for something better."

Dale Smith, a homeless advocate who serves on the local Commission to End Chronic Homelessness, told council that homeless people are living in the woods, on the streets, in dumpsters and in their cars.


Jennings reviewed CACLV's programs to help the poor and homeless, but said that assistance doesn't come close to solving what he described as a massive problem.

He also said there isn't any money to address such issues. "It's amazing that the existing homeless shelters are still in business."

Jennings said 2,500 homeless people were sheltered in Lehigh Valley last year, adding 35 to 40 percent of them were kids.

Jennings warned council a one-size-fits-all approach does not work when it comes to homeless shelters. For example, he said children should not stay in the same place as someone who just got out of prison and still has drug or alcohol problems.

Jennings also warned: "You can't help someone who doesn't want to help themselves."

He said 60 percent of homeless shelter beds in the Lehigh Valley are in Allentown.