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United Way of Lancaster County


Homelessness system under-resourced, leaders tell Hourglass forum (video)

(Sources: Provided)

Deb Jones

Lancaster County’s homelessness system is broadening its outreach and building capacity, but its resources fall far short of the current level of need, leaders told Hourglass Foundation members at their organization’s monthly First Friday forum.

“Programs are saturated at their current state,” said Deb Jones, who leads the office of the Lancaster County Homelessness Coalition at the Lancaster County Redevelopment Authority. “The system needs to be expanded.”

Jones joined Justin Eby, the authority’s executive director; and Mandy Mastros, pastor of Lancaster Moravian Church, to give an overview of local housing and homelessness issues.

Housing shortage

Nationwide, levels of homelessness have been elevated since the pandemic. One key factor: An acute shortage of affordable housing. Locally, the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development estimates that Lancaster County needs about 20,000 more units accessible to households earning 50% or less of area median income. (For a family of four, median income here is $105,000, so 50% is $52,500.)

Justin Eby

By historic standards, a large number of affordable housing projects are in the local pipeline or under construction. But the total number of new units, 322, is a small fraction of the need, Eby said.

The imbalance leaves many lower-income households “cost-burdened,” paying more than 30% of their income toward housing. For county families making 30% or less of area median income, an estimated 84% are cost-burdened. Only Delaware County, at 86%, is worse, Eby said.

Jones stressed that there is no “typical” unsheltered inidividual or household. Yes, there are people with drug addictions or mental health issues, but also people working fulltime and seniors on fixed incomes that no longer cover prevailing rent.

She provided an overview of the county’s annual Point in Time count, its once-a-year census of individuals in shelters or transitional housing or sleeping outside. This year’s count was 597, up 13.5% from last year and up 26.5% from the year before.

Lancaster County’s Point-in-Time count results, 2009-23. (Source: Lancaster County Homelessness Coalition)

There were 10% more people in shelters year-over-year. In part, that’s because the county had 40 more shelter beds this year, thanks to the temporary expansion of the low-barrier shelter operated by the Lancaster County Food Hub.

That shelter is closing down this month, leaving Lancaster without a low-barrier shelter until the expected opening in December of one at Otterbein United Methodist Church. The coalition is stepping up its downtown street outreach this summer in hopes of mitigating the effect of the interruption.

Binns Park

Many Lancastrians’ impression of homelessness comes from passing by the encampment in and around Binns Park. Mastros said she’s often asked why people congregate there, and why some refuse to sleep in shelters.

Mandy Mastros

The latter may not want to provide their name and birthdate, which shelters require; or they may have hygiene or security concerns or be unwilling to give up a pet or a partner, or be unwilling or unable to refrain from drug use. As a social worker, Mastros said her role is to build rapport in order for people to accept help, and that takes time and trust is easily broken.

As for Binns Park, it’s appealing because it’s well lit, sheltered, convenient to community meals and other services; and because there’s safety in numbers.
No one denies the situation there is problematic, Mastros said: There are well-founded concerns around drug use, unhygenic conditions, safety and public order. However, Mastros said, the people at Binns have nowhere else to go; and absent a valid alternative, they’ll keep coming back.

The coalition is working to create two such sites: The 80-bed low-barrier shelter at the Otterbein church, scheduled to open in December; and a “hub” at the former Neighborhood Services building on South Prince Street, scheduled to open late next year.

The tentative project cost for the hub is $8.2 million; for Otterbein, $1.4 million. The coalition is still working on operating budgets for the sites and where the money will come from. Jones urged audience members to get involved in action and advocacy around homelessness and become part of the solution.

After the forum, One United Lancaster asked Jones and Eby if those sites are intended to draw people away from Binns Park. “That is a goal,” Jones said. Asked about accommodations for people who won’t come indoors, Eby said a possible outdoor shelter of some sort continues to be a topic of discussion.

During the Q&A that followed the presentation, several audience members mused about earlier eras in which basic low-cost housing, such as boarding houses or barracks, was more readily available. The South Prince hub is a step in that direction, but more projects are needed, Eby said.

In her presentation, Jones had noted that zoning and other municipal regulations frequently make affordable housing difficult or impossible to build, and that advicating for reform could allow for more supply.

Those who shelter at Binns Park are among those pointing out the problems there, Mayor Danene Sorace said. City police, she said, exercise “extreme discretion” in enforcement, refraining from treating homelessness per se as a crime but making arrests for drug dealing and the like.

Dr. William Stephan asked Jones how summer homelessness numbers compare with winter ones; presumably more people are outside, he said. When she said it’s not tracked because it’s “not helpful,” he pressed her: surely there’s seasonal variation, and surely it’s an important factor.

“That’s not one of our typical data points,” she replied.

Asked afterward about the exchange, Jones and Eby said the population is about the same year-round; it’s more visible in the summer, Eby said, but whether individuals are sleeping outdoors or in shelters, “the outreach is the same.”

Hourglass Chairman Art Mann Sr. asked what success on homelessness will look like. It will look like the 2012-2017 dip in the Point-in-Time count, Jones said; it will result from providing individuals and households with lodging that suits their needs.