Chester County is marking National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week by launching the Chester County Partnership to End Homelessness, a new program reflecting a reinforced commitment to helping the most vulnerable among us find or keep a stable place to live.
The partnership, organized by Chester County’s Department of Community Development, consists of a team of street outreach workers, a board of lived-experience advocates and nonprofit organizations that provide shelter and service.
“In a county as affluent as ours, some people may think we do not have homelessness, but in fact, hundreds of people every day lack a stable place to live, and the pandemic only exacerbated the problem,” said Chester County Commissioners Marian Moskowitz, Josh Maxwell and Michelle Kichline. “That is why we are so proud to elevate our commitment beyond our former Decades to Doorways program. Our outreach workers are now County employees rather than contractors, we have an advisory board of individuals who have experienced homelessness and who understand clients’ issues because they have walked in their shoes. We have also increased funding for the nonprofit agencies who provide shelter and transitional homes.”
Making the public more aware of the services available is a major goal of the Partnership. A new website launched today, showcasing the faces of homelessness, and telling people’s stories in their own words about their experiences. Other forms of outreach, such as newsletters and a social media campaign, are designed to help more county residents appreciate the importance of tackling this issue.
“We’re trying to break down the stigma that often comes from not having a stable place to live,” said Robert Henry, who administers the Partnership for the County. “We want to make more people aware that shelter and rental assistance are available and that it’s OK to ask for help.”
Henry noted that since the pandemic, not all shelters have been able to operate at full capacity. The family shelters have stayed at capacity because they feature individual units, but the group settings for individuals have only returned to a 50% capacity and will not be able to house any more than that for now. Therefore, the County has had to resort to placing people in hotels.
The remnants of Hurricane Ida compounded the shortage of space even further. The County still has 39 households (91 people) from the flood in hotel rooms. In addition, because of overflowing shelters, another 58 people are living in hotels.
The County receives referrals from the 2-1-1 central calling system and then dispatches outreach team members to meet with clients.
“We meet clients where they are, whether that’s on a bench in a park, sleeping in a car in an abandoned parking lot, or on the porch of an abandoned house,” said Emily Kopp, lead street outreach coordinator for the County. “After that we connect them to appropriate resources, whether that’s shelter beds or job resources, but our main focus and first step is to connect people to emergency shelter.”
Another coordinator on the outreach team, Erin Langan, said homelessness can affect almost anyone.
“We live in this community, work in this community, and we want to see everyone within the community thrive,” Langan said. “Homelessness looks like you and me. A large portion of the population is one financial difficulty away from losing their home. It’s not just about the chronic homelessness that many people envision. It’s your neighbor, the person you go to church with, and we want to be there to support those people.”
Lynnee Wilson-Smith co-chairs the Lived Experience Advisory Board. She first experienced homelessness at age 24 with her three-year-old. They lived in a transitional housing program for six months.
“That’s when my life changed and I knew I needed to serve a greater purpose,” she said. “From there, I learned how to budget, and in 2014 I signed my first lease. Then this past September I lost my house to Hurricane Ida and found myself homeless again, now living in a hotel. I see people who did not have the supports I had while I was in transitional housing. They’re not getting everything they need to be self-sufficient. My purpose is to get everyone to the table. We’re all going to eat!”
Carol Faddis, the other co-chair with the Lived Experience Advisory Board, said she joined this effort because the county does not have enough affordable housing.
“My homelessness started when I was nine and it went into my adulthood off and on,” she said. When I share my story, it lets clients know they’re not alone. People assume that you’re on drugs or that you’re lazy, and I want to let people know it’s not about that. I want to walk with people to let them know they can get housing.”
The nonprofit partners play a vital role in making the Partnership work.
One of those organizations is Friends Association for Care and Protection of Children. Executive Director Jennifer Lopez said the issue of homelessness is complex.
“It has its roots in systemic racism that has prevented people from being able to afford housing and to build wealth,” she said. “There are challenges around mental illness and substance use disorder, a lot of social problems, low minimum wage, and domestic violence that have led to the homelessness issue that we have in the county.”
Friends will be celebrating their 200th anniversary next year, and Lopez said the agency has always looked at what the community has said it needed and focused its mission on meeting those needs. “People have to understand it’s not a moral failing to become un-housed,” she said.
The Chester County Commissioners issued a resolution last week supporting National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, November 13-21. In it, Commissioners’ Chair Moskowitz and Commissioners Maxwell and Kichline acknowledge that hunger and homelessness continue to be a serious problem for many individuals and families in Chester County, and “encourage Chester County residents to recognize that many people do not have housing, are food insecure, and need support from citizens and private/public nonprofit service entities.”
Learn more about the Chester County Partnership to End Homelessness at endhomelessnesschesco.org.