(Editor’s note: This article is part of One United Lancaster’s coverage of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania’s 2023 Homes Within Reach conference.)
Since the pandemic, social service providers who address homelessness have been navigating a daunting set of challenges, including an acute shortage of affordable units and the ongoing mental health crisis and opioid epidemic.
In response, counties increasingly are taking steps to consolidate programming and increase coordination with their community’s nonprofits. At the Housing Association of Pennsylvania’s Homes Within Reach conference, two such case studies were presented: Westmoreland County’s development of a human services department; and the Lancaster County Homelessness Coalition’s vision for a community hub on South Prince Street.
Westmoreland County, population 352,057, sits just east of Allegheny County, home of Pennsylvania’s second largest city, Pittsburgh.
Historically, there has been no shortage of activity there around homelessness initiatives, but “there was no structure to it,” said Dan Carney, executive director of the Union Mission of Latrobe. “… We didn’t have a shared vision.”
Organizational relationships were informal, and contingent on how well particular leaders got along with each other. Groups would meet to share information, but actual collaboration was limited. In short, there was a clear need for a more systematic approach, he said.
The pandemic highlighted the need for reform. Around the same time, the county government conducted a thorough study of social services, with funding support from two local foundations.
That led to the creation in 2021 of Westmoreland County Human Services Department. It unites eight county agencies, most of which previously reported directly to the county commissioners.
Initially consisting of just a human services director, it now has a staff of nine. Four of those positions were added this spring: An administrator, communications director, community educator and homelessness prevention manager.
Providing community input is a Homeless Advisory Board, comprised of nonprofit stakeholders. Previously, the group worked together as the Westmoreland Housing Action Team (known colloquially as “WHAT,” an acronym that caused more than a little confusion, Carney said).
The new arrangement facilitates a level of coordination and program integration that previously had been lacking, Carney said.
A case in point: The county’s shortage of emergency shelter space, long a sore point, is now being addressed, with two new shelters, one for men and one for families, under way.
A lot of work remains to flesh out the new arrangement, Carney said, but “we know that it’s going to lead to stronger outcomes.”
The Lancaster County Homelessness Coalition has worked under three parent organizations over the past decade: In 2015, it moved from the county Behavioral Health department to Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health; in 2022, it finalized its move from LG Health to the Lancaster County Redevelopment Authority.
That gives it direct access to the redevelopment authority’s resources, including staff, state and federal funding programs and funding from the authority’s affiliated nonprofit, the Lancaster Redevelopment Fund, said Deb Jones, who leads the coalition as the authority’s Human Services director.
Like communities nationwide, Lancaster County is seeing a sharp increase in homelessness. In evaluating how to respond, the coalition took note of the “collective impact” approached that United Way of Lancaster County had encouraged with two rounds of three-year grants starting in 2015.
The grants went to multi-agency collaborations rather than individual nonprofits to encourage a holistic, coordinated approach to social services. Among other things, it led to the creation or expansion of several regional “hubs,” including one in Elizabethtown, spearheaded by Elizabethtown Community Housing & Outreach Services, or ECHOS, which Jones founded; and the Northern Lancaster Hub, spearheaded by Ephrata Public Library and REAL Life Community Services.
No comparable hub had taken root in Lancaster city itself, even though that’s where the need was greatest. Establishing one would go a long way toward enhancing and coordinating the work of the more than 50 nonprofits involved in providing housing and related services, Jones’ team decided.
That’s the vision for the Prince Street Community Hub, planned at 132-134 S. Prince St., the former Neighborhood Services building and the row home next door. Jones and Data Compliance Analyst Christopher Thomas gave their audience an overview of the $6.2 million project and its “trauma-informed” design. The floor plans include space for crisis housing, supportive housing, temporary seasonal emergency shelter and a community social services center.
The hub is working its way through the city approval process. The coalition hopes to start construction in time to open by the end of 2024.
Partners have been extensively involved at every step, Jones said, with the result that an ambitious project, stemming from a long hoped-for vision, “is now coming to fruition.”