Haven Ministry officials say homelessness is prevalent problem in Northumberland County
SUNBURY - Beds are hard to come by inside Northumberland County's only homeless shelter. Its director says vacancies are often filled in less than a day.
Haven Ministry is again at capacity this week, indicative of a homeless issue experts say is largely unrecognized locally.
Because people don't see the homeless sleeping in a box on the street doesn't mean there aren't people without a place of their own, said Gregg Stavinski, director of Northumberland County Adult Services.
It's usually the winter months when the homeless reach out for help, Stavinski said. Not this year. Two months into the fiscal 2014 and adult services is seeing its client numbers rise.
Four adults have sought emergency shelter since July 1, compared to eight such placements in the entire year prior. There were 36 adults or families for which eviction was resolved by Adult Services in fiscal 2013, and eight such cases so far this year.
Fifty-five individuals or families sought shelter through Central Susquehanna Opportunities' tri-county area since October, according to Gale Zalar, community action director.
Stavinski and Zalar agreed the actual number of people without a permanent home is much larger. There's no accurate count of the homeless. Many are "hidden," either blended in or out of sight. They're young, they're old, they're parents. Some have jobs. Some are couch-surfing. Some don't want help.
"They're here. We have them," said Brian Ambrose, Northumberland County housing coordinator, of the "hidden homeless."
Haven Ministry, on South Front Street, opened in 1991. It can house 32 people comfortably in eight different areas. The current capacity is about 25 since the women's dorm is under renovation.
Residents are men and women, children and senior citizens. The average stay is four months. Some people have stayed close to one year. They must keep the shelter clean inside and out, and also cook most of their own meals. Their efforts were evident Wednesday: the shelter was spotless.
There are often single mothers staying with their children at the shelter, but shelter director Christy Ziegler says the clientele's individual situations vary widely. Some had never finished high school, and others have college degrees. One resident had been a nurse. A common factor is drugs and alcohol.
"We try to get them out as quickly as we can, but with no jobs ... it can be difficult," she said while giving a tour of the children's playground and nearby vegetable garden.
Ziegler is the lone full-time staff member. There are two part-timers. Overnight volunteers are crucial. The shelter relies on donations from local churches, the United Way, citizens and businesses. National Beef and Weis Markets are two of its largest donors, helping stock a food pantry that not only feeds shelter residents but also area residents. Haven Ministry provided food to 286 adults and children registered for the food bank.
Shelter residents are helped to obtain not only jobs but also GEDs, drivers licenses and birth certificates. There are tutorials on budgeting and basic accounting, and lessons on how to dress for and act during a job interview or when meeting a landlord for an apartment.
That's the type of help received by Tyler Casteline, a 19-year-old Eagle Scout and graduate of Northumberland Christian School. He's lived there about two months but doesn't expect to be there much longer.
Casteline will soon begin an underwater welding class with the Job Corps. He expects to be enrolled for up to two years. When he graduates, he says he's guaranteed to have work.
"I just want a place of my own, where I can say 'this is my wall,'" Casteline said, holding a hand in the air as if touching it already. "Where I can hang up my own things. I paid for it."
He's hardly the only one seeking work.
Matt DeNicola, 44, an area resident for eight years, says his personal struggles cost him good jobs over the years. He moved into the shelter one week ago, showing up with a bicycle, a duffel bag and some Bibles. He has two job interviews today.
"Decision-making," DeNicola said, "is the biggest lesson I've learned. If you say you're going to do something, you do it."
Ziegler said too often the shelter's residents are stigmatized.
"I wish more people would come and see them and talk to them and see they're not evil. They're just down on their luck," she said.
On the rise
Zalar said homelessness is among the most pressing social issues facing Northumberland County, and the homeless aren't always lucky enough to end up in a facility like Haven Ministry.
One man was living inside a vacant portion of a local strip mall. A woman from the south met a man online and moved to the coal region, and when the relationship turned sour quickly, she was left without a place to live. Another young couple was found sleeping a few nights inside the bucket of a loader. Many people seeking shelter are seasonal workers.