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Who is homeless in York County?

Written by Gordon Rago, York Daily Record | Feb 6, 2016 7:21 AM

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"I know Harold. He was my Harold first," jokes Laura Ruhling, left, seen here embracing Air Force veteran Harold Turner as they talk with with Barbara Leonard, a licensed clinical social worker with Lebanon Veterans Affairs on Thursday. Ruhling was making a homeless count with Leonard, and met up with Turner before he got breakfast at Our Daily Bread on South George Street. 

An hour or so before Thursday's sunrise, Laura Ruhling and Barbara Leonard met in a York parking lot with one goal in mind: Find homeless people living out on the streets.

Years ago, the women met through York County Children and Youth Services. Leonard was a case manager while Ruhling worked for Catholic Charities, which CYS had contracted with.

Nowadays, the two are enveloped in the world of homelessness in and around York County, committed to helping military veterans find housing.

"We follow the 'housing first' philosophy, which means you get (homeless individuals) housed first," Ruhling said. "Because you can't focus on sobriety, you can't focus on employment if you have no address to put on your resume."

 

Their mission Thursday was one small part of a county-wide effort this week to tally homeless populations -- veterans and non-veterans -- and connect those in need with resources they need, including housing.

Essentially, Ruhling works on outreach. A homeless person she works with to get a roof over his or her head can then be referred to Leonard who works with them from a clinical standpoint.

From the parking lot on North Duke Street, the two walked down to East Gas Avenue, peering into breezeways and hidden corners looking for anybody sleeping or tucked away in a discreet area.

Thursday morning was the first time for Ruhling and Leonard to take a boots-on-the ground approach. And it started at 6 a.m.

They carried blankets, scarves and hats to give out to anyone they found.

Leonard said they aim to get a homeless person into a home within 90 days of working with them. Ruhling was able to do that recently.

A day before last month's historic snowstorm, Ruhling got a homeless man into an apartment within a day. It was, admittedly, her quickest turnaround, but well worth the effort in light of the amount of snow that fell in York.

In all, the two walked close to two miles on Thursday. They scoured city parking garages, walking up and down staircases. Ruhling checked under a bridge on North George Street heading out of the city, where she saw a cardboard mattress -- but no people.

Some of the tell-tale signs of someone sheltering themselves inside a garage or alley include discarded cigarette butts, empty liquor bottles or the smell of urine.

"A lot of the homeless population, they're homeless for reasons -- drugs and alcohol, mental health," Ruhling said. "Their families have abandoned them, because they have burned all their bridges."

"And I'm often the last resort," she said.

By the end of the morning, the pair found no homeless people out on the streets, a welcome sign. Most homeless, they said, find shelter during winter or "couch-surf" with friends and family.

A county-wide issue

The York City/County Continuum of Care counts the sheltered homeless population every year, meaning they tally people who use shelters such as the York Rescue Mission.

In the winter, measuring a homeless population presents its own challenges.

Those who would typically find shelter outside, like in a tent near the rail trail, come to the rescue mission.

"They are not as visible as you would see walking down Broad Street in Philadelphia," said Matthew Carey, executive director of the York Rescue Mission, on what homelessness is like in York County. "They are a transient population, but they are very discreet."

But there might be reasons behind that.

As far as veterans, those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or an "adverse childhood experience" are more likely to avoid seeking shelter, Leonard said, because being around larger crowds might trigger something in their past.

She said a clinician can work with homeless veterans to explain the effects trauma can have on the brain, and then "rewrite neurotransmitters in the brain."

That sounds complicated, but the work boils down to telling the person that they are loved and that someone cares for them. It can also mean having the individual go through cognitive behavior therapy, Leonard said.

Counting in southern York County

Until recently, the semi-frequent homeless count did not include the southern end of York County. But that changed in the last two years.

Late Thursday night, a team of surveyors from Penn-Mar were to drive around places such as Shrewsbury, Loganville and Glen Rock to count homeless individuals.

Penn-Mar has recognized there have been homeless people in the southern end of the county for years, said Rich Robinson, director of development. But the issue tends to look different. Its Southern Community Services division works with homeless families.

"There are differences certainly between a city environment and a country environment," Robinson said. "The problem down here is that it's harder to identify because the (homeless) population isn't concentrated."

The southern end of York County also does not have a homeless shelter, Robinson said.

It's difficult to pinpoint the driving reason for causes of homelessness in that end of the county, Robinson said. But it could be attributed to factors such as mental illness or the aftermath effects of the economic downturn.

Penn-Mar has seen how homelessness pervades area school districts and affects children, Robinson said.

You might have children that are not living at any fixed address," he said, "doubling up with other family members."

A solution becomes finding housing for those children or their families, but that is a "tremendous challenge," he said.

Ending the day at the soup kitchen

One veteran who's benefited from Ruhling and Leonard's work is Harold Turner. The 1972 Dallastown High School graduate joined the Air Force shortly after school.

He was stationed in South Carolina and then went to England before the Vietnam War came to an end. He later moved back to York County, first living with his parents in Yoe.

Now 61, Turner said he became homeless around the time he got into a car accident at the beginning of 2014. It left his vehicle totaled and him unable to drive to a new job.

He had been living with a friend, but unemployment insurance money ran out.

Turner worked with the York Rescue Mission and later became eligible for a house. He's been living in an apartment above a nice restaurant in downtown York for several months now.

Leonard and Ruhling say they are big advocates for Turner, who also helps other veterans who might be homeless.

His apartment is a place to find some stability and claim something that's his while he can use the resources of the community.

About Barbara and Laura

Barbara Leonard used to teach trauma classes to graduate students at Widener University. She is a licensed clinical social worker for the HUD-VASH program of the Lebanon Veterans Affairs office that helps provide housing to veterans through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Laura Ruhling, who is from York County, works in supportive services for veterans and families for the YWCA of greater Harrisburg.

Meeting on homelessness

What: The community is invited to attend a meeting about an effort designed to help homeless families get the support they need to attain stable housing. It is part of a national, faith-based program.

When: 7 p.m. Feb. 9

Where: St. Matthews Lutheran Church, 839 W. Market St., York

Details: For more information, contact Lorraine Gay of St. Matthews at 717-845-2721.

Local resources for help

York County has various resources for homeless individuals. Among them are the York Rescue Mission, 367 W. Market St., 717-845-7662, the Bell Family Shelter, 852 E. Market St., 717-845-9536, and the Changing Lives Shelter in Hanover, 136 Carlisle St., 717-633-6353.


This article is part of a content-sharing agreement between York Daily Record and WITF. 

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