Rain showers and highs in the mid-40s marked the start of Lancaster County’s winter shelter season on Friday.
The county’s homelessness response system traditionally expands capacity on Dec. 1 to accommodate the expansion of demand that comes with cold weather.
Nonprofits report that need has increased this year, with more individuals and families being forced into unstable housing situations or ending up on the street.
They also say that finding shelter staff, which is often challenging, has been especially so this year, due to the tight job market.
In Lancaster city, officials had hoped today would bring the opening of a new 40-bed low-barrier shelter at Otterbein United Methodist Church. The project is led by the Lancaster County Homelessness Coalition and its parent entity, the Lancaster County Redevelopment Authority, with support from city government.
Unfortunately, the effort has encountered multiple setbacks, and will not happen on time, as leaders outlined to City Council this week.
Individuals seeking shelter, or others helping them to do so, should begin by dialing 211 to reach United Way of Lancaster County’s PA 211 East referral service, the Lancaster County Homeless Coalition advises.
Arrangements must be made in advance before arriving at any shelter, the coalition says. Following the proper procedures helps to ensure that shelter staff members are prepared to welcome new arrivals and that space is available.
Meanwhile, Good Samaritan’s winter shelter in Ephrata, which last year opened on Dec. 1, is pushing things back a month this time, to Jan. 1, 2024.
That’s because Good Sam has hired a fulltime homelessness outreach coordinator, a first for the area. That will allow it to provide in-depth care and support to help clients move toward stability and self-sufficiency, spokeswoman Rachel Shelley said.
Overall, the enhanced service should help them end up better off; the tradeoff, owing to limited resources, is a shorter shelter schedule.
In northwestern Lancaster County, the winter shelter in Elizabethtown is on track to open this coming Monday, Dec. 4. It has a maximum capacity of 42 beds.
The following emergency shelters are offering winter availability:
The Food Hub’s year-round 40-bed low-barrier shelter in Lancaster relocated last month to the former Benjamin Roberts furniture store on North Prince Street. It is open from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. daily. It has separate areas for men and women and is limited to adults; it cannot accommodate anyone under 18.
Officials are currently evaluating whether the new site, which is more than three times the size of the previous location at Ebenezer Baptist Church, can be configured to accommodate a winter expansion.
As of Friday afternoon, there was no definitive word, but “we are working diligently,” Executive Director Paige McFarling said.
Located at Water Street’s campus in the 200 block of South Prince Street, the Providence Emergency Shelter serves single men and women. It has a capacity of 80. A few more beds can be added temporarily in the case of weather emergencies, if staffing is available, spokesman Matt Clement said.
The shelter operates year-round. There have been some openings early in the week but it tends to fill up by Fridays, Clement said. Guests have access to the Providence Day Center and are encouraged to take advantage of Water Street’s programs.
Water Street is actively seeking volunteers, donations of food and winter clothing and staff, Clement said. The need for staff to fill second-shift and third-shift positions is especially acute, he said.
“Code Blue” alerts are declared by the Lancaster County Emergency Management Agency in response to extreme winter weather: Temperatures below 20 degrees, wind chills below zero degrees, or major storms.
When that happens, the Lancaster County Homeless Coalition mobilizes additional resources. Organizations that serve homeless individuals are asked to extend their hours or open warming centers. Outreach workers make extra efforts to engage with unsheltered individuals and encourage them to come indoors.
Efforts may also include providing transportation, hot food and beverages, or other assistance. The specifics depend on the scale and duration of the emergency, with longer cold snaps or more severe storms eliciting a more robust response.
“We evaluate all the variables involved,” said Deb Jones, director of the coalition’s administrative office at the Lancaster County Redevelopment Authority.
Elsewhere in Lancaster County
The Columbia Dream Center’s shelter program has been providing about two dozen beds year-round at the borough’s Columbia Presbyterian Church in the 300 block of Locust Street.
Its capacity is sometimes limited because the beds are bunks, and some people can’t sleep in a top bunk, the Rev. David Powers said. Powers is the director of Hands Across the Street, the shelter’s parent program.
The shelter is open from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. daily. It is for single adult men and women only. Guests normally must be Columbia residents or demonstrate a strong connection to the borough. They are encouraged to make use of the Dream Center’s Day Center, which provides resource navigation and other services.
Operated by ECHOS, Elizabethtown Community Housing & Outreach Services, the shelter will open Monday, Dec. 4 and operate daily from 6: 30 p.m. to 8 a.m. until April 5. It has separate men’s and women’s areas with a total of 30 beds, plus 12 more beds in three family rooms as well as a laundry, showers and lockers. Individuals with disabilities can be accommodated.
Guests receive meals, resource navigation and other assistance, Development Director Natalie Dixon said. To be eligible, they must have a connection to a northwest Lancaster County community: Elizabethtown, Bainbridge, Marietta, Maytown, Mount Joy or Rheems.
Last year, the shelter served 75 people and provided nearly 3,000 bed-nights, Dixon said. The numbers are expected to increase this winter.
The site has 70 volunteer shifts a week, she said, with overnight staffing being the most acute need.
Good Sam is partnering with The Living Room ministry to host Ephrata’s winter shelter, as was the case last year. In 2022-23, Good Sam’s shelter operation provided nearly 1,800 bed nights at The Living Room and Ephrata First Church.
This season, the shelter will be open from Jan. 1 to March 1, 2024, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. nightly. Eligibility is limited to single adult men and women only and guests must be Ephrata residents.
Good Sam and The Living Room are planning for occupancy of up to about 10 individuals a night, Good Sam spokeswoman Rachel Shelley said. The site is not wheelchair accessible.
Good Sam’s new outreach coordinator, Emma Mcanany, started Tuesday. She will handle screenings for the shelter and ongoing case management.
Good Sam is actively seeking volunteers to help with operations and meal preparation; it is also seeking overnight shelter monitors, who are paid.
Meals are currently the No. 1 need and “would be a great way to get involved,” Shelley said.