No easy answers for helping homeless

Hearts for the Homeless has a drop-in center on the corner of Fraser Street and College Avenue to help those in need get out of the cold.
Hearts for the Homeless has a drop-in center on the corner of Fraser Street and College Avenue to help those in need get out of the cold. CDT photo

It’s 9:30 on a Monday night at the State College Municipal Building and, while everything is quiet, a bearded man in tattered clothes is sleeping on a bench in the corner of the lobby.

The man is just one example of the homeless problem in State College. There are 35 to 45 people living on the streets here, according to Ginny Poorman, founder and director of Hearts for the Homeless, a daytime refuge downtown.

Although they are a tiny sliver of the more than 3.5 million homeless people in the United States, homelessness is still an issue the community faces.

One recent situation illustrating the problem is the case of 36-year-old Stephen Shepard.

Shepard was arrested Sept. 25 after he was accused of stealing a rosary from Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church on Westerly Parkway. When found by church officials, Shepard was barefoot and looking for food.

It was not the first offense for Shepard, who, according to police, arrived in State College in September. He was arrested the day before in connection with the theft of a student’s cellphone, and again Oct. 14 on charges of criminal trespass and false identification.

David Lapinksi, a deacon at Our Lady of Victory, said there are three types of people who can be classified as homeless, and Shepard fits the third description.

“There’s three levels,” Lapinski said. “The transient, almost the hobo, in their 30s, who’s traveled around looking for a hot meal and a place to stay for a day or two. Then you’ve got the ones who live in the area who maybe have a place to stay, maybe not, but they kind of wander around. They are the homeless. But then you’ve got the ones that have a serious mental issue. That third classification is the most problematic.”

Lapinski and State College police Lt. Keith Robb said the same thing about Shepard: Although he is not a criminal, he is a man with a mental disorder who needs help.

“He has some psychotic issues; he needs some medication,” Lapinski said. “Our motivation was based on, here’s a person that has some problems and we have a policy of helping people.”

A letter criticizing the church’s decision to have Shepard arrested was published in the Centre Daily Times on Oct. 4. Shortly after, Lapinski wrote a letter to the newspaper defending the approach, saying the church was trying to get Shepard the necessary help.

Neither Lapinski nor Robb could confirm where Shepard is now, but both said he has received help.

“We knew that this man was in trouble mentally, so we weren’t gong to throw him in prison,” Robb said. “We put him in the system, tried to initiate him with something with mental health.”

Robb added that there was an effort to have him placed in The Meadows, a psychiatric treatment center in Centre Hall, although he did not know if that plan was successful.

For Robb, getting people help with their mental health is where the issue of homelessness becomes tough.

Because most mental health services require that a person ask to be treated, police and others cannot force people to get help unless they show themselves to be a threat to themselves or others.

In Shepard’s case, his few run-ins with law enforcement were not enough for the court to force him to get treatment. The police and Our Lady of Victory said his family has thanked them for helping but that there isn’t much else they can do.

Shepard’s situation is not unique.

“It’s not really common but it’s something we deal with,” Robb said. “Unfortunately, for mental health (treatment) a person has to request it. To force treatment on someone is difficult. Just because someone is sleeping in a laundry room doesn’t mean they’re a threat to others.”

“We don’t control who goes to jail,” he said. “Some of these (homeless people) might get 30 days for something, but then they’re back on the streets and they do it again. It’s a frustrating cycle.”

Robb said the police department has worked on this issue by training officers to distinguish someone who is mentally disabled from a person who is merely drunk or causing a disturbance.

The approach has helped in terms of making sure people are treated fairly, but it is not a complete solution to the problem, Robb said.

“We’ve been formally training our officers on crisis prevention and how to recognize signs of mental illness. Just because someone is acting unusual doesn’t mean they’re drunk,” Robb said. “If anything, we have been making improvements.”