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Franklin County has 10-times more homeless people now than in 2010

Written by Jim Hook/Chambersburg Public Opinion | Aug 17, 2017 2:47 PM
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Franklin County Courthouse (Photo: Public Opinion)

(Chambersburg) -- Some families are struggling to keep a roof over their heads while coping with mental illness.

An estimated 50 people are living locally in homeless families.

To help homeless families, Franklin County commissioners are applying for a $222,000 Housing and Urban Development grant. The application comes at a time when Washington is considering cuts to HUD programs.

The county has a waiting list of several homeless families who meet the grant criteria of having a mental health disability. The grant would provide 10 apartments and services.

The number of homeless counted in Franklin County has grown 10-fold in seven years.

Nationally, the numbers have declined. More than a third of America's 550,000 homeless people live in homeless families, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

More than 50 people in Franklin County are homeless with their families, if the national ratio is applied to the county's homeless population of 160.

Commissioners on Tuesday considered nearly $450,000 in HUD grants for 33 apartments to house the homeless.

"These are some of the biggest grants that the county manages," County Administrator Carrie Gray said.

"This is substantial funding," said John Hart, county chief clerk. "It doesn't meet the need."

The county cannot tackle the problem by itself, Hart said. He encouraged community groups to get involved, but he wasn't sure what they can do.

"I'm inclined to think it's going to get worse," Hart said. "This is something that should be on everybody's radar."

Seven years ago when county officials undertook the first census of the homeless in the local area, they counted fewer than 10 people.

Despite the increased count, Assistant County Administrator Steve Nevada said he doubts that homelessness is growing in the county.

"We're getting better at knowing where they are," said Jennifer Wenzel, supervisor of the county mental health and homelessness program.

"Homeless individuals don't come up to you and report to you," Nevada said.

The semiannual 24-hour census has not counted any homeless in Fulton County, he said. "We know that's not true."

The number of homeless can also change by definition. School districts count children who are couch surfing or living with relatives as homeless. By that reckoning the Chambersburg Area School District had about 115 homeless students in 2016-17. HUD considers only people who have been without a home for at least 12 months of the past three years and who are dealing with mental health issues.

In any event, the homeless shelters in the county are chronically full, Wenzel said.

This year county programs are supporting about 100 homeless people and 210 individuals and families at immediate risk of becoming homeless.

The county only recently started a pilot program to help homeless families. The Human Services Block grant advisory committee became aware last year of families living in cars and on the street. They set aside part of the flexible Human Services Block Grant to help them.

This year the county is looking for permanent funding. The county has performed well in using HUD grants, according to county staff.

"There is concern at the federal level that the grants will go away," Gray said.

Congress has been reluctant to go along with President Trump's near 15 percent slashing of HUD's current $46 billion budget. The House has proposed a 1 percent cut while the Senate is considering about a 4 percent increase. Homelessness spending in both the House and Senate versions is flat at $2.4 billion.

Commissioner Robert Thomas said he thought HUD Secretary Ben Carson will do a good job in the agency.

This year county programs are supporting about 100 people who are homeless and 210 individuals and families at immediate risk of becoming homeless.

"Three years is a critical time (for reaching them) after which they assimilate with the culture of the homeless," Gray said.

"Without a roof over their head they're not going to worry about their health or mental health," Wenzel said. "They're going to worry about surviving."

Also without an address they cannot get a job, social security benefits or economic support, she said. One of the county's goals is for once homeless people to improve their incomes so they can better support themselves. About 80 percent have done so.

This article is part of a content-sharing partnership between WITF and Public Opinion Online.

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