A ‘snapshot’ of homelessness in Centre County: Many get help, but some still struggle

How you can help the homeless?

There is no one-size-fits-all plan that works for helping the homeless. But rather than ignore those living on the streets, use these suggestions to guide your desire to reach out.
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There is no one-size-fits-all plan that works for helping the homeless. But rather than ignore those living on the streets, use these suggestions to guide your desire to reach out.

On one night in Centre County, staff from the county’s Department of Human Services and housing nonprofits counted 129 homeless individuals on the streets and in shelters.

The data comes from the 2019 Point-in-Time count, a requirement from the federal office of Housing and Urban Development for all local Continuum of Care programs with goals of ending homelessness. This year, the count occurred on Jan. 24, with local staff asking where people slept the night before.

That number of homeless people in Centre County, said county Director of Adult Services Faith Ryan, is “almost double what it was last year,” because it includes 59 people in the Housing Transitions rapid re-housing and permanent supportive housing programs.

The count

During the PIT count, Human Services staff counted four unsheltered individuals, but received about 26 leads on unsheltered people. To be unsheltered, Ryan said, a person has to have slept somewhere “not meant for human habitation,” such as a vehicle, street, park, sidewalk, bus station, tent or abandoned building.

Some of the leads staff received could be repetitive, said Ryan, but they also represent the people staff could not reach on a singular day. They received another 12 leads for individuals and families with housing instability — those could be people living with relatives, on someone’s couch or in a hotel, said Ryan.

On Jan. 24, staff also identified 31 people who had slept in an emergency shelter — like Out of the Cold: Centre County — the night before and an additional 35 people who were in transitional housing.

Blankets are folded on top of cots, which are provided by the Out of the Cold: Centre County program, at State College Presbyterian Church in December 2017. Centre Daily Times, file

Housing first programs

Programs like rapid re-housing and permanent supportive housing are now included in the count because people have to be “literally homeless,” or unsheltered by definition, to qualify, said Centre County Housing Transitions Executive Director Morgan Wasikonis. The programs are part of the “housing first model” HUD is moving toward, she said.

People living in permanent supportive housing, Wasikonis said, are those who have high needs and many barriers to being self-sufficient. Many of the 15 people who are now in Centre County’s program were counted as unsheltered homeless individuals during the last few PIT counts.

“Some of them had actually been living on the streets for decades,” she said.

For the 44 people in the rapid re-housing program at Housing Transitions, the goal is to help them become self-sufficient, said Wasikonis. Instead of waiting for people to become “ready” for housing, under the new model, people are first given housing, a security deposit and rental assistance to allow them time to get back on their feet.

“The program’s been really pretty remarkable,” Wasikonis said. “Some of the folks who had been chronically homeless are just thriving in the community now.”

Reaching out

An important part of the PIT count, according to Wasikonis and Ryan, is the outreach staff is able to do while canvassing neighborhoods and businesses.

Ryan said that multiple times over the last few counts, “people will say, ‘Well I’m actually homeless, or I know so-and-so’s homeless.’ ” Sometimes those people are the cashiers at businesses they visit, or cooks in restaurants they pass through, she said.

“I think it’s still a pretty hidden problem,” said Wasikonis.

One of the most important things to remember about the PIT count, she said, is that it’s “just one snapshot” of what homelessness looks like in Centre County. People’s circumstances and finances are always changing, and a person who has housing today might not have housing tomorrow, she said.

“Just because somebody wasn’t counted as being homeless one night, doesn’t mean they’re not experiencing housing insecurity. So it continues to be a challenge just to address it,” she said.

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Sarah Paez covers Centre County communities, government and town and gown relations for the Centre Daily Times. She studied English and Spanish at Cornell University and grew up outside of Washington, D.C.