Don’t let homelessness go unnoticed in Centre County

Homelessness is the friendly gentleman at the checkout counter at the grocery store who asks you how your day is going. It’s the woman you see every day walking her dog. It’s the family from church whose kids like to play with yours.

The faces of homelessness in Centre County are always changing. And they’re not easy to recognize. People living with housing insecurity oftentimes have jobs, but are unable to afford permanent housing. They can be people who have been staying with relatives, but have worn out their welcome. They could be people who have unexpectedly found themselves unable to work.

Homelessness could happen to any one of us; and for some of us, it does.

Fortunately, our county is rich with resources and has a deep network of caring people working hard to help those who find themselves without a place to lay their heads at night, whether for just a night or two, or longer term. Each year from October through April, volunteers from 13 congregations in the State College area work together to provide overnight shelter for homeless adults. Since its inception in 2011, Out of the Cold: Centre County has seen the number of people it serves more than triple, serving 95 individuals last year. This year, the program is hosting about nine-10 people per night, and seeing about six new people per week. The volunteers not only provide guests with a place to sleep and warm blankets, they also stay with them throughout the night, provide meals and pay for transportation to and from the shelters.

The people who run the Out of the Cold program, incredibly, are all volunteers, members of the community who identified homelessness as a problem in Centre County and resolved to do something about it. Since 2011, more than 400 volunteers have contributed to the effort.

But as the need for shelter increases, so does the need for volunteers and participating congregations, especially in areas outside of State College. Each church hosts the program for two weeks at a time, then it rotates to a different location. Help can come in big and large packages, from signing your congregation up to be part of the program, to dropping by a shelter location and offering free haircuts or a place to shower.

For longer-term shelter situations, Housing Transitions on East Nittany Avenue in State College offers accommodations for families and works with residents to address the root causes of their housing insecurity. Housing Transitions employs case managers and works with other community organizations to help residents manage their finances, apply for Social Security or disability, get job training, battle addiction, or even learn English if necessary. Social services agencies are eager to work together because homelessness is a community problem, and it will take the entire community to help alleviate it.

Other community resources for those facing housing insecurity include the Centre County Women’s Resource Center, Community Help Centre, Bridge of Hope Centre County, Youth Services Bureau, CenClear, Centre County Can Help, Centre Volunteers in Medicine, Interfaith Human Services, Hearts for the Homeless, Opportunity Clubhouse and Strawberry Fields, among others.

So this holiday season, especially as the temperatures drop below freezing and the county’s hit with snow and ice, take time to think about those who aren’t sure if they’ll have a warm place to sleep that night. And remember that the homeless could be your co-workers, your friends, and people you see and interact with every day. Homelessness is a hidden problem in Centre County, but as the Out of the Cold numbers indicate, the problem is real — and growing.

To truly end homelessness in Centre County, the larger, underlying factors such as mental health treatment, addiction, affordable housing and availability of well-paying jobs must be addressed. But while those bigger issues can’t be ignored, there are still plenty of things individuals can do to help.

Cook a pan of lasagna or pot of spaghetti for residents at Centre House. Drop off new T-shirts, sweatpants, pillows and blankets at the Women’s Resource Center. Stop by a shelter location and share your talents: play music, cut hair, lead an art project or help people balance their budgets. Donate your time or money to Out of the Cold, or get your congregation or organization involved. And most importantly, don’t let the problem of homelessness in Centre County continue to go unnoticed.

Start the conversation by talking to friends, family members and co-workers about the problem of housing insecurity facing Centre County residents. Bring the issue out of the darkness and share with others the rich resources available and opportunities to help. And hopefully, that conversation will help get more people under permanent roofs in Centre County.

Tell us what you think. We will compile your letters about housing insecurity in Centre County for publication in a few days. You can send your letter quickly by going to www.centredaily.com/ opinion/letters-to-the editor/submit-letter.

Are you experiencing housing insecurity?

Contact the Housing Transitions support hotline at 237-5508