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Centre County is experiencing a “homelessness crisis” fueled by COVID-19 and rising housing costs

“Our homeless shelters have been at or beyond capacity for many months, and we’ve been sheltering close to 45-55 households at any given time in a hotel."

  • By Madeline Miller/WPSU

 Madeline Miller / WPSU

(State College) — Centre County shelters are seeing a surge in the local homeless population, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and rising housing costs.

At the Centre County Board of Commissioners meeting on January 18, Centre County Adult Services Director Faith Ryan said the county is facing a homelessness crisis.

“To date, we’ve also helped approximately 1,000 households in Centre County, and we’ve had over 1,700 households apply,” Ryan said.

Ryan said local homeless shelters are full. They’ve temporarily placed some of the people in need of housing in hotels.

“Our homeless shelters have been at or beyond capacity for many months, and we’ve been sheltering close to 45-55 households at any given time in a hotel,” Ryan said.

She said Centre County is not the only county that has experienced an increase in homelessness.

“So this is definitely something that other counties have been experiencing too and we can honestly say that we’ve been seeking guidance wherever we can. We are definitely seeing an increase in people that are struggling to either secure housing because of costs or availability,” Ryan said.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness did its most recent survey of the U.S. homeless population in January 2020. Even before the pandemic, it was the fourth straight year of an increase — to almost 600,000 people homeless nationwide.

The alliance said “COVID-19, elevated unemployment rates and widespread evictions could diminish or completely wipe out previous gains made by those working to end homelessness.”

Kendra Gettig is the interim executive director of Out of the Cold. She said many of the shelter’s guests sought out its services due to losing their jobs during the pandemic.

“We’ve seen our guest numbers grow for sure. A lot of our people work in the restaurant industry, or they work at stores, so some of the places that closed early on in the pandemic. So, a lot of our guests lost their jobs,” Gettig said.

Gettig said the pandemic has also hindered Out of the Cold’s ability to offer essential substance, mental and behavioral health services.

“So a lot of our guests have substance use issues. It’s harder to get into rehab facilities right now, a lot of NA and AA meetings are online rather than in-person. A lot of mental health support services are also via telehealth rather than in-person visits, so it’s a little bit harder for people to access the services that they need,” Gettig said.

Morgan Wasikonis is the executive director of Housing Transitions. She said their shelter has also had to adapt during the pandemic to carry out operations while social distancing.

“We also provide for everyone’s basic needs when they are in the shelter, so we’re trying to do that remotely as well. So that’s a challenge,” Wasikonis said.

On top of operating throughout the pandemic, Gettig said homeless shelters are also tasked with handling preexisting challenges, like finding permanent affordable housing for guests.

“So a lot of our people are only able to work minimum wage jobs and it’s just really hard to afford an apartment in this town on a minimum wage job,” Gettig said.

Wasikonis said the affordable housing options that are available have barriers to entry.

“It’s very limited and very hard to get in. There’s often waitlists,” Wasikonis said.

Gettig said another big, ongoing challenge the shelters face is job placement.

“A lot of our guests have barriers that make employment difficult, whether that’s some form of disability, whether that’s mental health, so oftentimes it’s hard to find a good job for our people,” Gettig said.

Both shelters have found ways to meet the needs of the growing homeless population, but Wasikonis said she doesn’t think the situation will improve soon.

“As much as we’re in a crisis situation now, I think it’s going to continue to get even worse before it gets better,” Wasikonis said.

Gettig said collaboration has been instrumental in Out of the Cold’s ability to operate through hard times.

“We’re fortunate to live in a community that works well together. It’s regular that our people have multiple case managers, like one at the shelter and one at another community organization,” Gettig said.

Wasikonis also says the community has stepped up to help Housing Transitions throughout the pandemic. She says as the community begins to return to normalcy, she hopes support will continue.

“These are just tough times for a lot of people. And the people that are working hard, a lot of the places that you go into, restaurants and grocery stores and all the retail places, a lot of the time those are places where people that we serve work. And they’re working hard and they’re trying to get through things, but they have extra challenges on their plate,” Wasikonis said.

At that Centre County Board of Commissioners meeting last month, Ryan said the county would need $4 million more in Emergency Rental Assistance Program 1 funding to get to September. Centre County Adult Services does not know if it has been selected to receive that additional money from the state of Pennsylvania.

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