With Lancaster County seeing a rise in homelessness in the past two years, volunteers are preparing for a one-day count later this month to find out if the trend is continuing.
The annual “point-in-time” count will take place Thursday, Jan. 23, with teams fanning out countywide to find people living outdoors or in quarters not fit for habitation. Emergency shelters will also report their numbers.
The annual snapshot documented a record low of 321 people experiencing homelessness in 2017. But mirroring a national trend, homelessness here has ticked up since then. The count found 406 in 2018 and 422 in 2019.
Nevertheless, the number remains well below the over 600 homeless documented here in 2009 and 2010. But officials are concerned about the recent increase, a reversal of the five straight years of decline that followed the Great Recession.
“It says we have continued challenges with homelessness in this county,” said Jennifer Koppel, director of LancoMyHome, a coalition of agencies and organizations working on the problem. “So we have continued to see systemic issues that we have to dig into, like poverty, food insecurity and mental health.”
A referral team at Tabor Community Services that helps the homeless find housing has been working with about 1,800 individuals or families each year, Koppel said.
Men’s shelter fuller
The winter count is a federal requirement for agencies, like LancoMyHome, that receive government funding to house the homeless.
While exact numbers are reported, Koppel said it’s impossible to know how many people the teams might miss as they head to parks, woods, parking lots and other places where the homeless are known to congregate.
“What’s more important than if the number goes up is talking about the whys. We use it as a dialogue opener,” Koppel said.
If the count increases again, Koppel said, it will underscore the urgency of trying to keep at-risk people in the housing they have or to rapidly find new housing for those who find themselves with no place to live.
Water Street Mission, on South Prince Street, has seen a slight increase in the number of men it has sheltered this past year. It averaged 200 or more men a night, compared to about 190 men the previous two years, said Jack Crowley, mission president.
The number includes both men staying at the emergency shelter and those who are temporary residents working on life-improvement programs.
Meanwhile, an emergency winter shelter for women at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, at West Vine and South Prince streets, has seen fewer women staying overnight.
The women’s shelter, which runs from Dec. 3 to April 2, is averaging 25 to 30 women a night this year, compared to 35 to 40 in the first month last year, said Rebecca Saner of the Food Hub, who coordinates the program.
Volunteers for the point-in-time count work in teams for 90-minute shifts, starting at 5 in the morning. Volunteers must take a one-hour training.
Those interested in participating may send an email to Lancomyhome@gmail.com.