PBS hosts homelessness workshop
The bitter cold weather and sharp wind March 11 reminded the meeting attendees, 10 women and five men, gathered at the PBS 39 Community Room, that the needs of the homeless were critical. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to be homeless and outside today,” one participant said.
The workshop on Homelessness and Housing, sponsored by the Bethlehem chapter of the NAACP, featured discussion with Eugene Gonzalez, executive director of the Bethlehem Housing Authority, and Allyson Lysaght, City Housing and Development planner.
Esther Lee, NAACP chapter president, said the solution calls for more than just homeless shelters. “I’m looking for a place where homeless people can call home,” she said. “To know every night where you are going to lay your head.”
Pam Lewis, case manager at New Bethany Ministries, said she attended a webinar with state representatives on March 9 which focused on the proposed cuts in federal Housing and Urban Development funding. “There is a crisis,” Lewis said. She said many representatives are against funding cuts in the HUD budget. “They don’t support this. They are hearing that this is not something we support. That gave me a little hope,” Lewis said.
Lysaght said the city faces a potential loss of $350,000 in HOME funding and $2 million in Community Development Block Grant funding, both of which come from the HUD budget.
Lewis said New Bethany has a hospitality center, called Mollard Center, located at the corner of Fourth and Wyandotte streets. The center, open from 7-5 daily, offers meals and public showers. New Bethany Ministries also works with Haven Health to offer psychiatric services and the Lehigh Valley Health Network’s “Street Medicine” program.
The proposed funding cuts are threatening New Bethany’s transitional housing program, which assists people who need housing, “not because they are not working. They don’t have a liveable wage.” Participants are taught life skills to build their self-sufficiency.
Gonzalez also discussed the uncertain funding, saying, “for the first time we don’t know” whether funding will continue. “The affordable housing need has never been greater,” he said. Currently there is a 5-6 year waiting list, with 1952 families (typically a mother and child) in the city waiting for housing. The waiting list for the high rises, which are for singles, seniors and people with disabilities, is about 2 ½ years, Gonzalez said.
Cordelia Miller, NAACP first vice president, said there are dilapidated buildings in the city in need of restoration. She said she was glad to see blighted properties in the city being restored, since the renovated buildings can be used to ease the housing need in Bethlehem. “The mayor has taken a stand to do something about it,” she said. Lysaght said city staff members use an app to track and report blighted properties in need of repair.
Lee said it was up to community groups like the NAACP to get involved. “We need to speak to these issues. We need to start backing things up” to strengthen families in the city who need affordable housing. “These are communities but they are not strong. All of us are in one pot,” Lee said. “We’re looking for solutions. We have to pull this together. Children are sacrificed. We need to do more for families.”
Miller said housing will be most effectively addressed on the city level. “We’re taking a whole generation of children and putting them at risk.” She suggested they could help the city by working with landlords to help with the housing crisis. “We need to figure out a way that we can support you,” Miller said to Gonzalez and Lysaght.
Lewis also said there is a need for someone to advocate pro bono for people facing eviction from bad landlords.
Officer Kris Shirk of Bethlehem Police Department said officers are on the lookout to help homeless people, especially during cold weather, to avoid a potential tragedy. “We find them,” he said. Local churches take turns offering shelter during overnight hours, and Officer Shirk said there is a no turn down policy. Lysaght said the city is looking to arrange an all-day site for the homeless.
She said the recent improvement in conditions on the Southside has had an unforeseen effect; that some people who lived there can’t afford the increased rent and are moving to the north and west sides of the city.