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United Way of Lancaster County


Homelessness update: With shelter downsizing, site availability uncertain, coalition proposes ‘interim plan’

Water Street entrance to the Lancaster County Food Hub’s overnight shelter in the 200 block of North Prince Street. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

Since late last year, the Lancaster County Food Hub has been overseeing 80 low-barrier shelter beds for unhoused individuals at the former Benjamin Roberts building on North Prince Street: the 40 beds relocated from its former location at Ebenezer Baptist Church; and 40 more “extended shelter” beds added in December.

However, the 40 extended-shelter beds will be decommissioned as of April 1. Moreover, the remaining 40 beds may not be available after May 31: The Benjamin Roberts building is the site of an upcoming construction project, and the Lancaster County Homelessness Coalition has not found a backup location.

“I’m very concerned about what is to come,” Mayor Danene Sorace said Tuesday, after Justin Eby and Deb Jones updated City Council on the situation.

Deb Jones, left, and Justin Eby at their previous appearance before City Council in November 2023. (Source: OUL file)

Jones heads the coalition’s office, which is based at the Lancaster County Redevelopment Authority. Eby is the authority’s executive director.

Homelessness is surging locally and nationwide. Factors include a widespread shortage of affordable housing as well as increases in mental illness and substance use disorders, exacerbated by the pandemic and the opioid epidemic.

Last spring, City Council agreed to provide the authority $800,000 in American Rescue Plan Act money to help fund the 40 additional shelter beds. They were to come online Dec. 1, 2023, and remain available nightly through March 2026.

Otterbein United Methodist Church agreed to host them, but could not meet the Dec. 1 opening date, because its basement requires a sprinkler system and other renovations. The coalition expects the upgrades to be completed by the start of this coming December.

As a stopgap, it contracted with the Food Hub to open the additional beds at the Benjamin Roberts site. That effort ramped up beginning in mid-December.
Usage has been robust: Through the first two weeks of February, 85% of the extended-capacity beds were filled, according to a report (PDF) that Eby and Jones provided to City Council.

However, organizers said they have neither the personnel, the space nor the funding to keep it going as-is.

For the Food Hub, adding staff and managing the 40 “extended” beds has been a heavy lift. Continuing after April 1 “is beyond the mission and long-term scope of our capacity,” Executive Director Paige McFarling said.

The coalition has looked for another provider to take over, but so far it has come up empty, Jones said.

As for the site, it was available because its owner, Parcel B Development Co., had not yet begun its $29 million, 130-unit construction project there. It’s due to start soon after the shelter’s lease expires in May, Parcel B President Ben Lesher said. Obviously, that means building would have to be vacated, though Lesher said in the event something changes and the project is delayed, the shelter is welcome to stay longer.

Even if that ends up being an option, however, it wouldn’t make financial sense, Jones said.

By the end of March, according to the report provided to City Council, hosting the 80 beds at the building will have cost $335,905, which works out to an annualized budget of $1.2 million. That’s considerably more than the coalition can comfortably sustain.

Circumstances particular to the Benjamin Roberts site are contributing to the high cost. The authority is paying rent and utilities for a large space and is renting nine portable toilets and sinks to eke out the limited bathroom facilities. The costs at Otterbein church are expected to be substantially lower, Jones said.

In the report, the coalition says it is pursuing “all necessary resources” to keep the Food Hub’s core 40-bed shelter in service. However, no new site for it has yet been found that meets code requirements, Jones said.

In light of the circumstances, Jones and Eby are asking City Council to amend the city’s agreement with the authority. Council will consider doing so at an upcoming meeting, President Amanda Bakay said.

City Councilman Ahmed Ahmed asked if the shelter could return to Ebenezer Baptist Church. Not anytime soon, Eby said: Like Otterbein, it needs extensive renovations, including a sprinkler system.

To be sure, the loss of shelter beds will lead to more people sleeping on the street, Jones said. To offset that, the coalition is proposing a three-point “interim plan” to get more people into housing and increase the chance that they’ll succeed once they’re there. The components are as follows:

  • Intensified street outreach: Add staff on the street and expand funding available to cover startup costs, such as security deposits, for moving people into housing. Estimated cost: $100,000.
  • Extend support services for newly housed individuals: Dedicate two case managers to help rehoused individuals achieve stability, providing six to 12 months of active support. Estimated cost: $100,000 to $140,000.
  • Expand housing resources: Increase the number of affordable housing and supportive housing units. The Prince Street Community Hub, expected to open toward the end of the year would offer nine crisis housing units and 22 permanent supportive housing units. Estimated cost: None (funding already secured).

The coalition would need to raise money to cover the plan’s costs, Jones said.

Despite many challenges, the shelter at Benjamin Roberts has been effective, Eby, Jones and McFarling all said. The reduction of beds, whether to 40 or to zero, brings a risk that hard-won gains made over the winter in engaging clients and connecting them with services will be reversed, they said.

Sorace said she’s “heartsick” that things have reached this pass. She regularly fields complaints stemming from the large number of downtown congregants — drug use, public defecation, antisocial behavior that threatens others — and while the community’s compassion is unlimited, she said, its patience isn’t.

That the crisis persists is not for want of effort, she said. However, “this is requiring a level of engagement and investment that we have not had before.”