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Gridlocked: Homeless shelter clients could be on the street

Written by Emily Previti/Keystone Crossroads | Oct 29, 2015 1:45 PM
shelter_lewistown2.jpg

Shelter services Inc in Lewistown serving Mifflin, Juniata and Huntingdon counties. (Courtesy Jill Pecht)

(Lewistown) -- A Lewistown homeless shelter will start turning people away within a few weeks if state lawmakers don't agree on a budget.

"They'll truly be on the street, which is sad," says Jill Pecht, executive director at Shelter Services Inc. serving rural Mifflin, Juniata and Huntingdon counties.

Pecht spoke after the facility's board met and decided earlier this week they'd stop taking new clients Nov. 15 without a change at the Capitol.

"It's winter, getting to our season where we're horribly busy, and it makes me very sad and sick to my stomach that we'll truly turn homeless people away. That's what we are here for," Pecht says.

As the gridlock in Harrisburg continues, it's an increasingly common scenario around the state - particularly in rural, sparsely populated counties.

Families in need of rental or utility assistance have been turned away for weeks in Juniata, Mifflin and Montour counties.

 "Normally, we'd be able to provide them with a month's rent if they are in a situation where they might get evicted," says Montour County Human Services Director Greg Molter. "Or if they had a house fire or flood or catastrophe, we might be able to put them out in a hotel for a week. But we haven't been able to help anyone at all."

Molter and his counterparts in York, Juniata, Mifflin and several other counties say they're sent instead to nonprofit or faith-based organizations funded nearly exclusively by donations, not state funding.

"They already work with families that fall through the cracks of government," Molter says. "But I'm sure they're getting pretty well hit right now."

Montour senior citizens and others who depended on county transportation can't get to medical appointments, Molter says.

Same goes for Lebanon County, where the lapse was blamed for a recent suicide attempt.

Montour, Wayne and York counties also are wait-listing new requests for in-home services, which generally refer to things like installing ramps, renovating bathrooms and making other accessibility improvements for people with limited mobility.

There's not potential to restart these services, despite steps taken to restart cashflow.

York and Montour have arranged access to lines of credit, distinct from a loan because cash is taken and interest accrued gradually rather than at once.

 (Bradford, Sullivan and Susquehanna counties' joint Area Agency on Aging did that, too - the first time it's ever needed to do so, according to a report from the County Commissioners' Association of Pennsylvania).

Montour hasn't determined whether the cash will mean services resume, county operations continue, or both.

But in York, commissioners already know they'll use the $20 million credit line only for courts, jails and administrative offices, according to spokesman Carl Lindquist.

"It would've been $25 million more to cover (human services) through end of the year and that would add even more interest expense," Lindquist says. "We're trying to strategically manage funding losses as best we can. We're keeping in mind taxpayers, broadly, while continuing as best we can to provide services to those in need in absence of state funding."

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Shelter services Inc. (Courtesy Jill Pecht)

In Lewistown, Pecht says the best she'll be able to do come Nov. 15 is send would-be clients 40 minutes away to State College. But there, she says, they'll stay in churches authorized to provide shelter only overnight. Pecht's Shelter Services lets people stay all day and even employs some of them so they can save money toward a security deposit for a place of their own, she says.

Pecht will eventually have to send the facility's residents elsewhere, too.         

But before any of that, she's encouraging staff and clients to call their state lawmakers.

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