Being homeless isn’t a choice. Scott Shewell, executive director of Safe Harbour in Carlisle, said he fights that misperception every day.
The stereotype is that people experiencing homelessness game the system to take advantage of free offerings, or that they are lazy and want someone to take care of them.
The overwhelming majority of the people Shewell said he works with come to Safe Harbour, a not-for-profit organization that provides a continuum of housing services for the homeless of Cumberland County, because an event in their lives caused the chaos that results in homelessness.
“They would much rather be independent,” he said. “They would much rather have their own home and be able to be an independent, functioning member of society rather than having to rely on someone else to provide them with a roof over their heads and food for them to eat and transportation to get to where they need to be.”
There’s a whole list of reasons people may become homeless and, more often than not, it’s a combination of factors that leads to losing a home, Shewell said.
The path to homelessness begins long before the actual homelessness is visible to most people in the community.
“A lot of times people will see the end result of what appears to be poor behavior, but they don’t necessarily know the beginning,” said Beth Kempf, executive director of Community CARES, a nonprofit in Carlisle that provides services to those experiencing homelessness.
Many renters already have one strike against them in trying to maintain a household.
According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the average wage earned by the 96,501 households who rent in Cumberland County is $14.45 per hour.
Yet, that same household would have to make $16.10 per hour to be able to afford the average countywide $837 rent for a one-bedroom rental. This “housing wage” varies in different municipalities, from the lowest housing wage requirement of $15.96 per hour in the 17324 zip code in the Gardners area to a high of $24.04 per hour in the 17007 zip code in the Boiling Springs area.
In Carlisle, a worker has to earn $18.46 per hour to be able to afford a one-bedroom rental.
The economy is dictating higher wages as can be seen on the posters at convenience stores and fast food restaurants that boast starting wages at $10 an hour, but neither that nor the warehouse starting wages advertised at $14.25 an hour may be enough, Shewell said.
The guideline in the United States is that housing costs should be no more than 30 percent of a household’s net income, but the reality is that people are paying 50 percent or more for basic housing that does not include utilities, said Patrice Pickering, case management supervisor for the Cumberland County Homeless Assistance Program.
Pickering said she also deals with a lot of people who are on disability and receive about $775 a month.
“Split that in half and try to find housing for them,” she said.
Ray Shaull, supportive service coordinator at Community CARES, said the most common cause of homelessness that he sees is the loss of employment.
“Employment loss leads to everything. That’s the start of it,” he said.
Shewell recalls a woman with whom he worked several years ago. She was in her mid-50s with a four-year degree. One day, management came into her workplace and announced they were closing the facility, giving the employees 15 minutes to pack up and leave.
This was at the beginning of the recession, so the woman couldn’t find a new job, even though she looked, Shewell said.
She sold all her possessions until she was left with just her car. Eventually, she came to Community CARES and then to Safe Harbour. The agencies assisted her as she dealt with a variety of issues, including the depression resulting from her situation. She found a job, found permanent housing and has been on her own ever since, Shewell said.
Through it all, she was well-spoken, educated and well-dressed for her circumstances. No one would have known her situation if she didn’t tell you, he said.
Hiding homelessness isn’t unusual. Rather than the stereotype, a person experiencing homelessness can be active at houses of worship, at work, in the classroom or at a restaurant, Pickering said.
Many parents will tell their children to never tell anyone they are homeless. That would set in motion protocols within the education system and Children and Youth Services, said Tim Whelan, executive director of Cumberland County Housing and Redevelopment Authorities.
“For a lot of these children, school is the only stable point they have in their lives, so the parents will do everything possible to keep the kids in their school,” he said.
Working to hide homelessness takes a lot of resiliency, Pickering said. Students who hide homelessness from their classmates do the work to stay in school and get the grades they need in order to get out.
The way in which people find jobs can be problematic. Pickering said a lot of jobs in the area are through temp agencies. The agencies say they are temp to hire, but they don’t hire, she said, adding that not all of them do it but enough do to raise a caution flag.
That led the homeless assistance program to add a qualification that it will only work with people employed by a temp agency if they have been assigned to a position for a year or more.
“I’m setting them up for failure if I spend the money — taxpayer money — to get them into a place and then two or three months later, they’re not making candy so they downsize or they let them go,” Pickering said.
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Mental health issues can also be a risk factor for homelessness, Shewell said.
It’s a problem exacerbated by a lack of resources to address mental illnesses. A number of mental health institutions were closed a decade ago because the state believed the communities would be best able to assist people with mental illness. The premise at the time was to funnel the money that would have been used to maintain the institutions back into the communities to help fund the services, Shewell said.
Then, the recession hit. Tax receipts went down, and not nearly enough money ended up back in the communities. Now, resources for care are stretched thin. It can, for example, take up to six months to get in to see a psychiatrist who is the only one who can write a prescription for medicines to assist with mental conditions, Shewell said.
The cycle of mental illness is such that people can have seasons of doing exceptionally well. If they have personal support, an individual can go on for the rest of their lives without losing a job or becoming homeless, Kempf said.
But, what happens if you have to be admitted to a psychiatric ward for a period of time, and your boss can’t or won’t hold on to your job or your landlord won’t hold the apartment, she asked.
Kempf said Community CARES has also encountered people who battled mental deficiency or illness for their entire lives but are left without support when their parents die.
“That’s very sad because it’s not for a lack on their own. They don’t even know where to begin,” she said.
Addiction, whether that be to drugs, alcohol, video games, sex or anything else that would cause you not to make good decisions about your life, can also factor into homelessness, Shewell said.
Sometimes one incident causes a spiral that sends a family into homelessness.
“When you’re living on the edge, it doesn’t take much to derail what’s going on in your life,” Whelan said.
It’s just such a one-two punch of life events that landed Deloris Bearden and her daughter, Brandi, at Community CARES.
They had been living with her son. When he moved in September, they stayed behind because of their jobs. Then in October, Deloris, a school bus driver, was in an accident and went through a bout of double pneumonia that landed her in the hospital for ten days.
She’s no longer able to drive, and her doctor wants her to be on disability, she said.
While Deloris waits for a decision on her disability and housing vouchers that will get them into a home in the Carlisle area, Brandi is working and looking for a second job that might help them get out of CARES sooner.
“When you’re in here, you meet all races, all kinds, all different lives, but we’re here for the same reason—to keep a roof over our head,” Deloris said.
There are also life issues that fuel the potential for homelessness. Someone may die, forcing the sale of a house, or there may be disagreements among the family concerning LGBTQ issues, Shewell said.
Support systems are critical in determining if a life event results in homelessness.
“Where do you go when you have no other family support, when you can’t go sleep on your in-law’s couch or you can’t stay at your friend’s place for a few weeks so that you can get a paycheck or two from your job to start looking for a place?” Kempf said.
Pickering stresses the need to be proactive when the potential for homelessness arises.
“We work with homeless and those that are near homeless going through a notice to quit or a court eviction to try to stabilize the situation and help them keep a roof over their head or get a roof over their head,” she said.
The county’s homeless assistance program offers rental assistance, intake and assessments, sustainability planning and case management referrals. One of the key differences between this program and other programs that are operated under the umbrella of Housing and Urban Development is that it takes in people tagged as “sofa surfers,” those who are staying with friends or family, if they have been in that situation for six months or less, Pickering said.
In response to calls asking for help in finding apartments, the program created a brochure on apartment living that helps people understand what to look for before moving in, establishing a relationship with the landlord and the importance of paying rent on time.
Some landlords will work with tenants when a relationship between the two has been established, but other are more reluctant since they work with less margin and are more dependent on the timely income of rent payments, Pickering said.
People need to know what is in their leases. Many people give up their right for a notice to quit, meaning a formal request for payment by a certain date, Pickering said.
“That’s really when we’d like people to give us a call,” she said. “We like to get them before court because every time the landlord sends them to court, they have to pay over $140.”
Basic budgeting is also a key part of the homeless assistance program. Pickering said about 95 percent of clients have never done a budget, so they guide them in looking at the net pay as it compares to expenses and working on ways to add or subtract from there.
“A lot of people never had these skills before and have been repeating behaviors that have been passed down generations. It’s really not working for them anymore so we go with what they want to do,” Pickering said.