Sanctuary sought by more here
By Bernard Harris, Staff Writer email@example.com
On Tuesday morning, about three dozen people sat inside the Community Homeless Outreach Center. Some read newspapers or played cards.
With a whipping wind outside and reports of a snowstorm on the way, it's not surprising they were inside.
Yet, Adrian Rodriguez said, they were not there because of the cold. There are people at the center, inside the Water Street Ministries building on South Prince Street, every weekday year-round.
"It's the same thing in the summer. When it's 90-100 degrees, you're going to come looking for relief," Rodriguez, the center director, said.
And this year there have been significantly more people coming.
The daytime drop-in center has seen a 50 percent increase in the number of visitors in the first two months of the year, he said.
Typically during a three-month period, about 400 people find their way to the center for the first time. This year, CHOC is on track to have 600 new visitors by the end of March.
What is less clear is why more people are going there.
"It's hard to put your fingers on," Rodriguez said.
It could be the prolonged economic recession, the relatively few available jobs or limited affordable housing, said Rick Sauder, who is on the center's steering committee.
"It may or may not be an increase in homelessness," Sauder said. "What it does mean is there are more people finding CHOC. That we know is true."
Bethany Woodcock, director of a winter shelter for homeless women, said more women and children have been coming to the shelter at the city YWCA than in previous years.
Since opening in December, 122 women and 29 children have stayed at least one night at the shelter, operated by the Lancaster County Council of Churches. An average of 32 to 35 sleep on mats in the YWCA's gymnasium floor each night, Woodcock said.
With four weeks left in the shelter's season, that number likely will rise, she said. It is already well above the 138 "unique" visitors in last year's season and the 130 the season before.
"It seems more people are staying for one or two nights," she noted.
The Water Street Mission, which operates the county's only emergency shelter along with transitional housing, also has seen an increase in overall residency, but only a slight rise.
There have been an average of 258 people staying at the mission in the first two months of the year, up from an average of 256 last year and 251 in 2011, said Maria Schaszberger, spokeswoman for Water Street Ministries.
The most significant increases were in the number of children and families staying at the mission and men in a work-training program, although the increases for the three groups were each in the single digits.
One area in which the mission has seen a larger demand for service is a program that supplies groceries for needy neighborhood families, Schaszberger said.
In January, 2,689 families came to the mission for grocery assistance, compared to a monthly average of 2,493 last year.
At the food bank and clothing banks at the Council of Churches offices on North Marshall Street, about 200 new people a month seek assistance. That number is fairly steady, said Debbie Evans, the Council of Churches director of operations and community services director.
Those new people are in addition to the 1,100 to 1,500 people in 500 to 700 households who were previously on the council's service rolls, she said.
And Mike Foley, of the Lancaster County Behavioral Health & Developmental Services agency, said a January count of homeless people in the county also did not register an increase.
Although numbers have not yet been released, the annual count by volunteers of the Lancaster County Coalition to End Homelessness does not show an increase, Foley said.
Last year, 526 people were counted as homeless in Lancaster County. That number was up from 481 in January 2011.
The U.S. Census Bureau released a report in November that ranked Lancaster as having the third-highest number of homeless people in the state, behind the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh metropolitan areas.
The figures from that report, based on the 2010 census, referenced 369 homeless people in Lancaster County. Those numbers were questioned by local officials, who said they did not know how the Census Bureau arrived at them.
The census numbers and the county's annual count reflect homelessness in Lancaster County on single days.
That snapshot does not give an accurate picture of transient homeless people, who might be moving through the area, noted Tom Clingan, director of Financial Stability and Homelessness for the United Way of Lancaster County.
Nor would the numbers show the people who were quickly placed in housing.
In recent years, Lancaster County has pursued a strategy of "rapid rehousing," which seeks to get homeless people back into permanent housing quickly, or, better yet, "diversion," which helps people in crisis stay in their homes.
Rodriguez, at the Community Homeless Outreach Center, points to statistics showing that the overwhelming majority of homeless people coming to the center in January and February came there only between one and five times.
"People in and out fast -- that means we're doing our job and getting them hooked up to the right service provider," he said.
Several times during the week, representatives from social service agencies staff a table at the center.
Rodriguez said the busiest of those providers are the Lodge Life Services and Tabor Community Services, which help with housing; the Community Services Group, which provides mental health services for the county; and the county Veterans Affairs office.
The 6-year-old outreach center provides a place for homeless people to come during the day, from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Those that do can use restrooms, add their names to lists to make phone calls, take a shower or do laundry.
"We're just trying to meet the need, and at the end of the day I think we're doing a great job of it. We meet the need, even if it's a simple as letting them make a phone call and connect with a family member," Rodriguez said.
Robert Marshall has gotten help over some hurdles, but he still has others to clear.
He's no longer homeless. For about four weeks he has been living in a one-room efficiency on West King Street. He also has beaten the gambling addiction that ate up his unemployment checks, he said.
Now Marshall, 40, is trying to save money for a car. That will enable him to get a job similar to the materials-handler position he held before being laid off two years ago.
Although no longer homeless, he returns to CHOC as an alumnus. There he talks to others and encourages them to get help.
"CHOC is a great program," Marshall said. "They have all the resources."n