HONESDALE, PA — It’s a cold night on Wednesday, January 22 as about 35 volunteers gather at the Wayne County Aging Office and prepare to take part in the annual Point-in-Time (PIT) …
HONESDALE, PA — It’s a cold night on Wednesday, January 22 as about 35 volunteers gather at the Wayne County Aging Office and prepare to take part in the annual Point-in-Time (PIT) homelessness count carried out by the human services department. After housing coordinator Vannessa McConnell’s safety presentation, the teams dispersed across the county to get a rough estimate on the number of people spending the night unsheltered.
The PIT count is a state-mandated snapshot of homelessness in every county across the commonwealth. In Wayne, with the need for homelessness programs steadily growing each year, and with PA’s human services budget flat-lining for the past seven years, Behavioral & Developmental Programs Administrator Margaret Ennis said this annual count is a “saving grace” for securing grant money and an important tool for raising awareness about homelessness.
“We never really find anybody,” a seasoned volunteer said to a newcomer as they zipped up their coats before leaving. “But I guess that’s a good thing.”
Looking at the results of the PIT count over recent years, it would seem that it’s becoming less likely for volunteers to find homeless people out on the streets. The total number of unsheltered people has gone from eight in 2016 and 2017, to five in 2018 and 2019. This year, the total number was three. McConnell, however, said that trend only tells half the story.
While the number of unsheltered individuals—people living in tents, cars, abandoned buildings, or railroad cars—has gone down, the number of homeless individuals being provided shelter by the county has gone up—the exact figure for 2020 is still pending. To human services employees, this means that homelessness isn’t going away, rather the county is reaching more people in need with resources like emergency-use apartments and transitional housing.
The county now also provides family-reunification programming and behavioral health assistance. It also provides money to help people in transitional housing move out, and to help individuals at risk of losing their homes pay the rent. The department is introducing something new in 2020: a warming station which will be open every Tuesday and Friday from 9 a.m. to 12 noon. The station is equipped with a shower, full-service kitchen, computers and a television; a caseworker will also always be present.
In 2018, Wayne County provided 217 individuals experiencing homelessness with assistance, with a 93 percent success rate. “Success” means that a person or family who received help from the county has not had to come back for more services.
Serving that many people and accomplishing that kind of success rate is not easy to do in PA; the commonwealth mandated a 10 percent decrease in human services funding in 2012 and has maintained a flat-funded, zero-percent increase ever since.
“It is difficult because we are dealing with this increase of homelessness, but we’re doing it with the same money,” McConnell said.
To balance the lack of state funding, the department relies heavily on grant money through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). What human services cannot pay for using grant money, it relies on the county for. This year, the needs of the department added about $1 million to Wayne County’s bottom line.
The county has been successful securing grants in the past, receiving nearly half-a-million dollars in grant funding in 2017 and 2018. However, there is no guarantee that this funding will continue.
“The grants are competitive, and there’s limited funding on the state and federal level,” Ennis said. “When we [first] applied, we were one of few, then as word got out, more people applied, but there’s still the same pot of money.”
Human Services Administrator Michelle Valinski said that a state-wide housing initiative has made grant funding even more competitive.
“The housing initiative is a huge push from the state, so more counties are providing housing services—that’s why those pots are getting smaller and smaller,” she said. “The state has this great initiative, and no money.”
The competition for grant funding is what makes the PIT count so vital; the data that Wayne County reports can make all the difference in how much money it receives. The count is also important for raising awareness about homelessness, Ennis said, a phenomenon that is widely misunderstood on a local level.
The local homeless population is largely made up part of victims of domestic violence and people dealing with, or in recovery from, drug addiction. She said it can be particularly hard for people in recovery from addiction whose families won’t let them move back in.
“These people are getting better, and it’s hard because their families aren’t giving them that second chance,” she said. “It’s important for them to be involved in the community; it’s part of becoming human again.”
Ennis said that addressing issues like homelessness and addiction involves everybody, creating what she calls a “recovery community.”
“We all need to be responsible for each other,” she said. “In our world, we call it ‘natural supports,’ who is it in the community that you can go to?”
McConnell has seen firsthand that people come to human services for help as a last resort, only after they have “burned bridges” with their natural supports. She said that directly contradicts another misconception that some have about people “taking advantage of the system.”
“There are way more people who need help and don’t ask for it, than there are people that do [ask for help],” she said. “We give credit to people who walk through our door, it is not a natural thing to do.”
McConnell, Ennis and Valinski said that the PIT count would not have been possible without the help of the volunteers, Wayne County Transportation System and the Wayne County Commissioners.