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Men at the emergency shelter at Water Street Mission set up 55 cots at 8 p.m.  January 7, 2015. Outside it was 11 degrees. Guests are expected to work on a plan out of homelessness or will be asked to leave.

Every night about 50 men sleep on three-inch mattresses on the shelter's crowded floor.

Warm and dry, but forlorn and uncomfortable, the emergency shelter at Water Street Mission, 210 S. Prince St., becomes for some a substitute home.

The faith-based organization, however, wants to transform lives, not see guests languish for months on end.

That's why change has come to the mission. It is now doing more to spur people out of homelessness.

"While we were helping many people experience life change, we also found that we were enabling others to continue living in homelessness," said Jack Crowley, Water Street's new president. "We're not designed to be a flop house."

Only those working toward a stable living arrangement are now granted an extended stay. Recalcitrant guests are asked to leave, sometimes after 15 days.

"We realized we needed to be intentional in helping people develop a plan from the first day they arrived," Crowley said. "We are redirecting more resources toward developing those individualized plans."

It's too soon to say if the mission's new policy is working or is leading more people to live on the street.

But Michael Foley, a county-employed research director who works with the Coalition to End Homelessness, said anecdotal evidence suggests the change is helpful.

"People who hadn't been moving in a positive direction for a long time now are," Foley said.

The protocol

So what can a new arrival at the emergency shelter expect?

Within 24 hours, a guest meets with a case manager — the mission has hired three — for a five-question intake.

Then, within two or three days, the guest sees a county-contracted social worker for an assessment that initiates a "housing first" response. (See accompanying story.)

The worker electronically documents the client's needs and refers him or her, via a computer network, to an agency best able to help.

There are different paths to housing. Some apartments or housing vouchers are reserved, for example, for those with mental illness; others for veterans.

But almost every housing search is hindered by the shortage of affordable apartments in Lancaster County.

Aware of the crunch, the mission allows longer stays in the emergency shelter, but only for those looking for housing and cooperating with an individualized treatment plan.

A plan is written after a guest has stayed for a week and is wanting to stay longer.

The guest meets with a mission case manager for an in-depth assessment addressing housing, life skills, physical health, mental health, income, community connections and spirituality.

The caseworker then writes the plan, which is a signed contract denoting a length of stay, from 30 to 180 days.

Expectations

The mission has 152 dormitory beds for those committed to working toward change. But staying depends upon a guest following the plan.

Expectations vary depending upon a person's capabilities, said Colleen Elmer, executive director of Water Street Health Services.

The mission will expect less for someone in the throes of unstable mental illness and more for a healthy, able-bodied guest.

One client might be expected to see a therapist, while another might be expected to attend classes and look for work at the state employment office known as CareerLink.

Meanwhile, a life coach — the mission has hired 20 — meets regularly to encourage the guest and hold him or her accountable.

Menu of courses

Besides creating individual plans for long-term guests, another major change at Water Street is programming.

No longer does the mission plug residents into a highly structured, six-month or year-long program with the same content for each participant.

Instead, a guest chooses from an array of classes or counseling options — including therapists from Philhaven, the Naaman Center and Day Seven Ministries — to meet his needs.

The mission wants guests engaged in productive tasks. Some may choose a class on parenting or job readiness. Others may choose Bible study.

By setting expectations and holding guests accountable, the mission believes it's being true to its goal of changing lives, Crowley said.

"Our desire is to serve as many or more individuals than before and to serve them well," Crowley said. "We continue to point people to the hope they can find in Christ while assisting them in finding sustainable housing and employment."