An End to Homelessness in Scranton and Lackawanna County?
When promises are made to “end” a major issue of society, such as homelessness, it is often political grandstanding or pie-in-the-sky naivety. Research indicates, however, that Scranton is well on its way to ending the problem of chronic homeless in the city by 2014, thanks to several government programs and the hard work of many local government officials and charitable organizations.
To undertake a problem of this magnitude, the crisis first needed to be clearly defined. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) classifies chronic homelessness as “an unaccompanied homeless individual with a disabling condition who has either been continuously homeless for a year or more or has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.”
Studies by HUD have found that this is the most devastating type of homelessness, representing 10% of the homeless population and yet consuming 50% of public resources. There are 45-50 chronically homeless people in Lackawanna County on any given night, according to county estimates.
Creating a Solution
In 1996, Lackawanna County took a major step towards tackling the issue. The Lackawanna County Housing Coalition developed a Continuum of Care Committee to provide supportive housing as a permanent resource for the chronically homeless. An application for Scranton and the county was submitted to HUD by the Continuum of Care Committee and they received their first Supportive Housing Program Grant in 1997, used “to establish transitional housing and supportive services for homeless families.”
In 2002, the Sub-Committee to End Chronic Homelessness was formed by “services providers and community stakeholders” from across the county. The National Alliance to End Homelessness, the largest nonprofit and non-partisan organization devoted to preventing and ending homelessness in the United States, and the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, which coordinates the federal response to homelessness by creating national partnerships with all levels of government and the private sector, both published detailed ten-year plans to end chronic homelessness, not simply manage it.
The local Sub-Committee developed its own one-year action plan in 2003, which since turned into the Scranton/Lackawanna County Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness, released on March 30, 2004 and supported by the city, the county’s Office of Human Services, and Mayor Chris Doherty.
HUD required that each community across the country develop a plan to end homelessness, and now Scranton had its own. All along, organizations like United Neighborhood Centers, the Women’s Resource Center, the Community Intervention Center, Catholic Social Services, and the American Red Cross, to name a few, had been working diligently to aid the local homeless, but now they had all joined together under one mission to prevent and eliminate the problem altogether. They even took advice from the homeless, and formerly homeless, themselves to create the plan, whose targets are adjusted and tweaked every few years to meet fluctuating demands.
Explaining the Plan
The Scranton/Lackawanna County Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness contains three key steps, each made up of its own smaller objectives that increase in size and scope each year. The first step is “prevention,” which prevents evictions, increases wage and income stability by finding jobs, develops a strategy using collected data to address homelessness’ root causes, and decreases the number of homeless women victimized by domestic violence.
The second step is “intervention,” which identifies the chronically homeless, makes permanent housing available, and reduces the number of roadblocks people face from finding permanent housing. The final step is “building the infrastructure to end homelessness,” which houses the homeless, provides services for finding and maintaining housing, and supporting efforts to generate a living wage and benefits that will allow people to pay for basic expenses.
Almost six years after its implementation, things are surprisingly shaping up for this ambitious plan, and in many cases, are ahead of schedule.
“A lot of the goals have already been accomplished. We’re still meeting regularly, going through the action steps and hitting our target dates,” said Linda Durkin, Deputy Director of United Neighborhood Centers.
“I believe that we’re ahead of our dates for the chronic homeless. I believe we were targeting housing 35 homeless by year 7, and we’re in year 6 and we’re already housing 40. It’s really a tribute to the way agencies and organizations in Lackawanna County come together to really work together in a cooperative way to identify the issues and address the issues,” agreed Michael Hanley, Executive Director of UNC.
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness’ Point in Time survey, which selects a random day of the year to calculate the amount of homeless for a region and compares it to previous years’ counts, the total number of homeless in Lackawanna County decreased by 58% from 2005 to 2007. The number of chronically homeless, in particular, dropped from 48 to 31.
This is not to say that it’s always been an easy, smooth transition for the plan. Many of the charitable organizations behind the ten-year plan have found themselves significantly challenged by the economic recession, beginning in late 2007 and continuing to this day.
“I think the economic issues certainly didn’t help us! I would say the number of homeless have increased since the collapse,” said Stephen Nocilla, Executive Director of Catholic Social Services.
“Our agencies are really being strained by the economy, so we have had to go and roll back many of our targets. There’s more chronic homeless now than there were six years ago because of the economy. We’re ahead on schedule in terms of how many we said we were going to house, but now there’s more out there,” Hanley explained.
To combat this issue, President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 into law on February 17, 2009, which included $1.5 billion for a Homelessness Prevention Fund. Funding for this program was called the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP). Lackawanna County teamed up with Continuum of Care Committee to fill out the HPRP application and received $1,401,868 for their efforts.
“This funding is only for renters. Say you lost your job and you made $70,000. Right now, you’re in an apartment with no income coming in. This funding prevents homelessness. We will pay up to 18 months rent and utilities to prevent you from losing that apartment,” clarified Linda Aebli, Executive Director of the county’s Office of Economic and Community Development.
“It’s not a welfare thing. These organizations will pay 100% of your rent for the first month, and then in two months, they’ll look at you again to see if you found a job. We wean you off. It’s preventing you from being on the street. It’s only a temporary solution to help the American people who lost their jobs to get back on their feet.”
As the economy continues to struggle to get back on its feet, many Americans now have a new perspective on homelessness. No longer are homeless people viewed as just a nuisance, but often victims of circumstances beyond their control that could happen to anyone in the working class.
“We’d like to increase our services for family and children more than we’ve been able to. That has a lot to do with priorities coming out of HUD. HUD’s priorities were chronic homeless six years ago. Now HUD is rethinking that and looking at prioritizing families with children as well,” Hanley said, looking towards future programs.
While the fight to end chronic homelessness in Scranton and Lackawanna County continues its success despite recent setbacks, it may be too early to tell if they will reach their 2014 goal. It is clear, however, that hundreds of people across the county are working tirelessly, and sometimes thanklessly, towards a real solution.