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Centre County homeless numbers deceptively low

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On a January day, teams of people headed out into the winter weather to count people.

They didn’t want to know how many people live in Centre County, or how many fill which demographic, or how many travel this way or that.

They wanted to know how many didn’t have a place to call home.

“There are so many different definitions of homeless,” said Faith Ryan, director of Centre County’s Office of Adult Services.

The teams, from the Office of Adult Services and Housing Transitions, concentrated in different areas. Some were in downtown State College and along Atherton Street. Others were in Bellefonte or Snow Shoe or Philipsburg.

Sometimes tracking down the homeless meant finding the one stereotypical person carrying their whole life with them from one place to another. Sometimes it meant asking in a convenience store if anyone knew someone who didn’t have a place to go home to only to have that person behind the counter say “Like me?”

When it was done, they had different categories of numbers.

There were the people in transitional housing. That was 49 people, with 20 housed at the Women’s Resource Center, 11 at Hearts of Homeless, 10 at Housing Transitions and eight young adults aged 17 to 21 at the Youth Service Bureau. Those are people in need for one reason or another getting back on their feet to achieve a new home situation.

Another 24 were termed “emergency sheltered.” Eleven were helped by Out of the Cold, six were at Housing Transitions, five at WRC and two at YSB.

“I think that’s a pretty powerful number,” Housing Transitions Executive Director Morgan Wasikonis said of the 73 people in some kind of shelter.

“It’s not that at any given time we have more or less people,” she said. “It’s that it’s different people. There are so many people living paycheck to paycheck,” she said.

When it comes to people with no place to turn, the utterly homeless or “unsheltered,” according to the count, Centre County was able to confirm five, and had one more person possible.

The numbers were compiled as part of a state push to quantify the problem. The agencies can use the homeless count as part of applications for grants or funding.

The numbers that are harder to measure are things the count can’t take into consideration, like people who are invisibly homeless.

“A lot don’t count,” said Ryan. “Like people who are couch surfing.”

In central Pennsylvania, a lot of people don’t “seem” homeless. They may not even think of themselves that way. But, between apartments, staying a few days with one friend or a couple weeks with a relative, they would be eligible for help from places like Housing Transitions.

“It keeps the problem not so visible,” said Wasikonis.

According to the state Department of Community and Economic Development, about 15,000 Pennsylvanians are homeless.

“It’s a major issue,” said Ryan. “Homelessness isn’t just that person on the street. It’s the ones you are going to work with.”

Lori Falce: 814-235-3910, @LoriFalce

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