EDITOR’S NOTE: Lycoming County’s homeless population often is overlooked and full of people from a myriad of backgrounds. On the PULSE will run a week-long series on the local issue including six different profiles on individuals struggling with homelessness.
WILLIAMSPORT – Hidden among the shops and homes of Williamsport are an undiscovered group of people living on the street, in a shelter or surfing from couch to couch.
The true number of the city’s homeless population is hard to calculate, even though a recent point-in-time count reported 137 in Lycoming County. This includes 14 unsheltered, 74 in transitional shelters and 49 in emergency shelters.
But the issue is more complicated than this, area experts say.
“The number is much much larger and we just don’t even know what that is,” said Cleveland Way, director of the Men’s Shelter at American Rescue Workers. “Most people don’t really talk about it, you just know.”
To determine exactly how many homeless are in the region would be impossible, according to Way.
The idea of homeless people sleeping under bridges or spending the night in shelters is common, but not always accurate, Way said. Jumping from house to house and couch to couch is the reality for many.
The point-in-time count takes place in January and includes people in shelters and on the street on one specific night.
“If you are in a residence and you are not paying any bills and you are sleeping on somebody’s couch they aren’t counting that because you have a roof over your head,” Way said. “But they are homeless. If they tell you you’ve got to go, then you have nowhere to go.”
More couch surfers pop up during the summer months, often due to warmer days when they can spend most of their time outside. But Way added that in winter the shelters tend to fill to overflowing as homeowners no longer want someone sleeping on their couch and staying inside their home all day long.
‘Not here to judge them’
For John and Susan Best, the issue of homelessness in Williamsport is obvious. Founders of the Code Blue Emergency Warming Shelter at First United Methodist Church, the Bests have been working with the area homeless for years, providing a place to sleep on cold winter nights.
In 2019, the Bests sheltered at least 18 men on nights that dipped to 32 degrees and below. Each person’s situation was unique. Some recently lost jobs, had family struggles or were sleeping on the docks or a tent outside.
“We’re not here to judge them … we’re here to love them and to welcome them with open arms,” Susan Best said. “We don’t care what they’ve done yesterday, we just care about sharing the love today.”
The community perspective of homelessness often is skewed by the misconception that people who are homeless are criminals. John Best acknowledged that this may be true for some, but for others it is more complicated.
“The homeless situation in our community is greatly misunderstood. I think people don’t understand why people are homeless,” John Best said. “In a lot of instances, a lot of people find themselves in a set of circumstances that roll out of control.”
A fire may burn your house down, your employer may go out of business and all of a sudden you are without a steady income or you lack the funds to get out of your situation, he added.
“There are people that are outside of the system – people that are overlooked,” he said.
One paycheck from being homeless
The path toward homelessness can start for anyone, according to Way. Whether it is due to mental health, drugs, losing a job or an extended government shutdown, roughly 40% of Americans are one paycheck away from homelessness.
Unexpected expenses or something as overt as a government shutdown, can be enough to send someone to a shelter looking for resources. This year’s government shutdown sent droves of people to area programs like American Rescue Workers looking for food, shelter or simply for help paying utilities.
“They realized how close they were to being homeless,” Way said.
While most people who fall into homelessness are eager to take responsibility for their actions, many have struggles outside their control.
A long-term solution
Breaking the cycle of homelessness is not a quick fix. For many it will take months or even years to break from the lifestyle of crime, drugs or family struggles that lead to life on the street or in a shelter.
Long-term programming is a primary way to reintroduce people into society, according to Way.
The American Rescue Workers’ new Fresh Start program began on April 1. The nine-month program focuses on introducing good habits, building community and providing resources to help men get permanent housing.
“They have been placed into apartments and they received a security deposit and furnishings and they are doing really well,” Way said. He added that of the men who have gone through the program so far, only 1% have failed.
Fighting against the 1%
Stigma surrounding the homeless population often rises from about 1% of its demographic, according to Shipman, referring to people who are reluctant to change. These individuals often will take advantage of the system and are a constant struggle for Shipman and his team.
“I’m always working against that 1%,” Shipman said, but added that it’s just that, 1%.
These are people who come asking for money or food over and over again, but don’t do anything to progress out of their situation. For Shipman, it’s simply a matter of learning to “read between the lines of what is truth and what isn’t.”
Way agreed that people unable to change their way of life will always be there. Often this can be attributed to a generational issue, he said. A cycle of lifestyle choices passed down from one parent to the next and until someone decides to break the trend, it will never change.
“If they don’t surround themselves with positivity then it’s going to happen,” Way said. “You know what your past is, you know what you’re afraid of so lets do it differently this time.”
These shelters provide assistance for men, women, families and those dealing with domestic abuse, drugs and alcohol recovery.
In addition, the American Rescue Workers, Sojourner Truth Ministries and Family Promise provide food to people in need.
The Central Pennsylvania Food Bank supplies food to many of these programs, according to Executive Director Joe Arthur, who added that the goal of the food bank is to provide healthy food, not just any food.
“The important thing is that the homeless in this area are well served with healthy food,” Arthur said. “Food is not the issue, we can get the food. It’s really getting all the other services that the homeless need to live their best lives.”
Arthur commended the collaboration between programs in the Williamsport area, saying it would be impossible for one program to supply all the food needs necessary for the area’s homeless and low-income individuals.