MILFORD, PA — On the Saturday night before Christmas, two dozen people gathered for a candlelight vigil in front of the Pike County Courthouse to commemorate National Homeless Person’s Memorial Day. The group was there to show their concern and support for the area’s homeless and to remember those who have died homeless. The event was organized by Pike County Hands of Hope (PCHOH), a local organization that is “dedicated to providing compassion and hope to homeless or near-homeless families and individuals by meeting their basic and urgent needs of food, clothing and shelter.”
The night of the vigil was mild for a night in late December, but the days and weeks ahead would bring bitter cold temperatures, the kind of weather in which (if you take the time) you wonder where and how homeless people are passing the night.
Theresa Rocco, president of PCHOH, spoke briefly. Later she revealed that from January 1, 2013 up until the night of the vigil on December 21, the organization had helped 118 clients in need. (On December 31 by the end of the year, PCHOH had received another 10 calls for help—five calls on Christmas Eve alone.) And since the beginning of the new year, with a number of sub-zero nights, they have received a handful of calls and have placed one person in a warming station in Port Jervis and put another up in a hotel for two nights.
Rev. Ben Willis of Milford’s First Presbyterian Church also spoke at the vigil, reminding those present that homeless persons need more than just housing. They need to be treated with dignity and respect, he said, and to be shown friendship and love. “Charity begins with relationships,” he observed. “We are what homeless people need.”
Started by a group of concerned members of St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church in Milford in 2011, PCHOH now has a nine-member board of directors, support from several local churches and organizations, and a number of dedicated volunteers. “No one is paid,” Rocco explained. “It’s all-volunteer.”
To many people, the homeless are largely invisible. Unless you know where to look, you would not know how to find them—perhaps spending the night in a parking lot at a shopping center, or at some hidden campsite, or sometimes sleeping on the floor in the home of some relative or friend who has taken them in. “Initially, our volunteers were going out to find the homeless,” Rocco reported. “Now our Hope Line is ringing a lot. People seem to be going to our local churches for help, and then they’re being given our number.” (The Hope Line number is 570/296-HOPE, or toll free at 855/296-HOPE.)
“The root cause for homelessness is that people living month to month are in a very fragile situation,” Rocco said, giving an example of a stay-at-home mother with a young child and an eight-year-old autistic child, where the father is the sole provider, and then he got hurt; or a person who can’t get transportation to work following a car accident, hitting a deer. “People fall on bad times for one reason or another,” she said.
Keeping families facing a crisis from becoming homeless in the first place is a top priority for the organization—whether it’s helping someone who’s received an eviction notice find less expensive rental housing or perhaps renegotiating a new, more affordable lease with a landlord, or just helping a client move. For now, finding emergency shelter is a bit challenging, as Pike County has no emergency shelters, something PCHOH hopes to remedy in the long run. For now, Hands of Hope is equipped to get emergency cases into a hotel, Rocco reported. Also in the planning stages is a community dining project called Stock Pot of Hope, in which meals would be served in a community-dining setting to those without food security.
Meantime, Rocco explained, “We refer people to all kinds of organizations depending on their needs… We have a 30-page referral book with all kinds of resources.”
Currently PCHOH is awaiting word from the federal government about its application to become an official non-profit organization, a so-called 501(c)3. This would allow donors to take tax deductions. Meantime, “we’ve been blessed by donors, by the churches that support us, by the Milford Knights of Columbus and the Hawley Rotary,” Rocco reported. She also wanted to thank two shelters, the Samaritan Inn in Franklin, NJ and Peaceful Knights in Lehighton, PA for their assistance.
Meantime, “the need is growing,” Rocco reported. “We continue to pray that our community keeps gifting us so we can continue our work, while we’re waiting for our non-profit approval… [but] right now, this is all we have to count on,” she said. “It’s been amazing—what we’ve needed we’ve always gotten.”
To receive information about PCHOH, email info@PikeCountyHOH.org .