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United Way of Lancaster County


Homelessness, street outreach, shelter: A Q&A with the Food Hub’s Rebecca Saner

The front and rear of 232 N. Prince St. in Lancaster, where a low-barrier emergency shelter is shutting down at the end of June.

This weekend, the emergency shelter that the Lancaster County Food Hub has been operating at 232 N. Prince St. is closing for good.

Expanded temporarily to 80 beds over the winter, the shelter reverted to its previous 40-bed capacity at the start of April. Its operations have been funded under a contract with the Lancaster County Redevelopment Authority, home of the Office of the county Homelessness Coalition, covering rent, utilities, staffing and other expenses.

Between December and March, more than 260 individuals made use of it, of whom more than 95% were new to the Food Hub’s services, Executive Director Paige McFarling said. Many were long-term homeless who had rejected previous efforts to interest them in coming inside or accessing social services.

While the city has other emergency shelter, it has been the sole low-barrier shelter, denoting minimal criteria for entry: People are eligible as long as they can look after themselves and pose no danger to themselves or others.

When the shelter was moved to 232 N. Prince St. last fall, officials knew would be a temporary location: The property is on track to be redeveloped into an apartment complex. The coalition had hoped to find another site for the summer but was unable to.

Rebecca Saner has been overseeing the shelter as the Food Hub’s Client Care and Outreach Manager. One United Lancaster recently talked with her regarding the shelter and the Food Hub’s plans to increase its street outreach efforts over the summer and fall until the expected opening of an 80-bed shelter at Otterbein United Methodist Church in December, operated by YMCA of the Roses.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

One United Lancaster began by asking how many guests the shelter was seeing on a typical night in the last couple of weeks.

Rebecca Saner

Rebecca Saner: When we learned the shelter would close, we (initially) decided not to take any new neighbors into shelter. (Instead), we pushed really hard to keep the individuals that we had in shelter, so we could really focus on what their goals were, and if we could find any kind of independent housing or next step for them.

After about two weeks, the need just kept increasing. We said, well, that’s ridiculous: If we have the beds, we are going to fill them. So, we are hovering around 35 to 40 people every single evening.

OUL: What can you tell me about them?

Saner: The individuals who came in for shelter were ones who were really resistant to services, (but) they decided to take a chance. And that relationship building model that the Food Hub is known for worked really well. So they stayed on with with us and we were able to secure more services for them.

They were more open to services like mental health, drug and alcohol treatment, housing opportunities. So the relationship just continued to grow. … Just within the last 30 days, we were able to help 12 individuals move on to more independent housing.

Individuals rest at the North Princes Street emergency shelter on Monday, June 17, 2024. Faces have been blurred. (Source: Lancaster County Food Hub)

OUL: How do you help people who are “resistant to services”?

Saner: The offerings that we have in Lancaster County are really program based, right? It’s like, “OK, you qualify to come into this service, but these are the things that you have to do.” …

We did not have those expectations. We could let some time pass. Instead of having that sort of forceful-type conversation with someone — “You have to set this goal” — we just let it happen authentically.

So someone would be in shelter for 30 days and there would be no, “OK, now’s the time to set a goal.” But they might come back and say, “You know, I saw this happening with someone else. I’m kind of interested in doing that.” We let them authentically create their own (goals) and then just supported it, whether it be “I’m interested in a sober living house,” or “I’m interested in independent living.”

That’s really where this success came from, that we didn’t have a set pattern that they had to follow in order to move forward.

OUL: I’m sure you’ve encountered people who say, “There are folks who are never going to take that step, so they’re going to remain on the streets for years. How is that helpful to the community or to those individuals?” What’s the answer to that question?

Saner: I think that’s absolutely true: What takes someone three months may take someone else three years. And I think that just has to be OK.

There’s really no ability to gauge success, because it’s so individual for each person. But being able to see even the small steps of growth — individuals that we know consistently slept in Binns Park for three-plus years, now they’re coming in every night. Their conversations used to be a little bit more hostile; now, they’re able to have a 5 to 10 minute conversation. …

They’re showing up to take a shower. They’re wearing clean clothes. They are seeking medical services when they’re available from the street medicine team. Meeting all of those things to us is a great success, and one that we want to continue to celebrate.

OUL: Let’s pivot to this summer, getting from now to Dec. 1. How do you anticipate that process continuing in the absence of the shelter for people to come into every night?

Saner: I think that this is something that we’re really looking at as we enhance our outreach service: that we are able to still meet individuals where they are without losing that relationship. So yes, the shelter did give us the opportunity to have people in a collective area, but I don’t think that we will lose out on the relationships we built. We’ll continue to build on those relationships, we’ll continue to offer consistency.

OUL: What personnel levels do you have and what are you envisioning?

Saner: We are looking at expansions within the staffing of our outreach team, but we’ve also been able to secure some volunteers that have been really helpful for us. … We’re looking at different models of volunteering and how to get more of the community involved in outreach. …

Currently, we have 2.5 outreach workers (i.e., two fulltime and one part-time) with flexible hours, including weekend and evening hours. We’re really focusing on things that community already has established, things like community meals, and how we can show up there and be able to support everyone. The same with weekends, looking at the parks and different engagements that are going on there.

OUL: Engaging with folks is one thing, but in order to refer someone to a service, the service has to be available. How is that going? Are you able to get folks into mental health or drug and alcohol counseling or transitional housing quickly?

Saner: I wouldn’t say that it’s quick. However, I think that what’s really important is knowing that that process has slowed down. We can list off several reasons why. But what’s really crucial is that our outreach model is making sure that we’re walking with those individuals.

So, even if it takes three weeks to get someone in for a psychiatry appointment, or three months, we’re remaining consistent with them. … (And) when we need to, we’re advocating to those agencies. We’re saying, “This is severe, we really need to get this moving.”

OUL: Are there any services that are particularly scarce? What’s the hardest to get a timely referral for?

Saner: I would say overall, everything is kind of equal. Housing is scarce. Mental health appointments are difficult to to maintain. Even primary care physicians, it’s hard to schedule out. I wouldn’t say there’s one versus the other.

OUL: From your perspective at the Food Hub, what are one or two top-of-mind things that people can do to help?

Saner: You know, just be a good neighbor. Seeing someone that is struggling and loaning them a few minutes of your time, that’s really crucial. (And) there’s obviously always a monetary call to action, right? As a social service agency, in the things that we are offering in the community, there’s cost involved with that.