HONESDALE, PA — Most years, Pennsylvania picks one night toward the beginning of the year for county housing departments throughout the commonwealth to conduct a count of their unsheltered …
HONESDALE, PA — Most years, Pennsylvania picks one night toward the beginning of the year for county housing departments throughout the commonwealth to conduct a count of their unsheltered residents. In what is known as the Point in Time (PIT) count, volunteers scour their communities, looking for individuals spending the night in cars, on park benches, or in abandoned buildings. Unsurprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench into this procedure.
Director of the local housing department Heather Miszler said that due to the pandemic, her department received a waiver from Housing and Urban Development to only perform a sheltered PIT count this year—meaning that, instead of finding how many individuals the community had living “on the streets,” Wayne County provided data on how many homeless individuals were living in a shelter, transitional housing or another safe haven. The data from that count was not available at press time.
From the very beginning, greater housing insecurity has been one of the most troubling symptoms of COVID-19. In 2020, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council’s Rent Payment Tracker, 294,224 fewer apartment households made a full or partial rent payment as of January 20 this year than on the same date one year earlier.
With so many out of work, or otherwise financially strained, governments—state and federal—have made multiple efforts over the past several months to counteract a surge in homelessness. Pennsylvania had its own moratorium on evictions that ran until August 31. Then on September 1, the Trump Administration announced an executive order barring most renters from evictions for the remainder of the year. Under the Biden Administration, the moratorium has been extended until Wednesday, March 31.
State and federal leaders have received a great deal of pressure from housing advocates to keep these moratoria in place, with others calling for the closing of loopholes that leave some renters unprotected. However, Miszler doesn’t see blocking evictions as an ideal approach, though she said she understands its purpose.
“One of my issues with the moratorium is with our homeless prevention funding; it actually restricts us from using it right now because of the moratorium,” she said. Miszler wants to use the funding she’s received to counteract homelessness before it starts in Wayne County, but since landlords are barred from evicting tenants for non-payment, she isn’t able to use much of the funding she’s received.
“It’s frustrating because we have consumers who are being proactive trying to reach out saying, ‘I’m behind, I can’t afford to pay my rent, my landlord is giving me a notice,’ and we can’t help them with that because of the moratorium and the state guidelines when it comes to that funding,” Miszler said. “I think that if they could allow people to be proactive, instead of just halting different things—like the moratorium with evictions—that would be the better approach... it would help the tenants clear out their balances or at least move them in the right direction, as well as the landlords because they’re struggling too... so I don’t think it’s fair for either party.”
In general, increased funding for housing in Wayne County has been one of the few silver linings out of nearly one full year of dark clouds the pandemic has precipitated. When the River Reporter covered the PIT count in 2020, the department’s lack of funding from the state was the main takeaway. Now, things are completely different, Miszler said.
“Funding has drastically changed since the pandemic has begun... There is more funding due to the CARES Act, and there’s also more flexibility with the funding and the types of assistance that we can provide,” she said. “Last year, there was just rapid rehousing funding, which is just assistance for homeless individuals or families that need to get into an apartment... but now we have that homeless prevention funding... we also have that shelter funding to help with hotel stays while we’re looking for apartments... there’s utility assistance; it’s much better.”
Miszler said in August 2020 that the caseworkers in her department had seen their caseloads double since COVID-19 arrived in Wayne County. She said that it’s continued to increase since then.
With increased CARES Act funding, the department isn’t necessarily financially strained by the increased volume of individuals who need help. The bigger struggle is finding places for them to stay. With the county in the midst of a real estate boom, housing stock is low.
“The market is really hot right now, so a lot of people are selling their properties—they’re not renting their properties—so that’s another big barrier,” Miszler said.
Going forward, Miszler said that she’s continuing to apply for more funding through the state’s Emergency Solutions Grant program, hoping to get more money for rapid rehousing, homelessness prevention and emergency shelter. She encouraged anybody facing a housing crisis to reach out to the department at 570/253-6758.