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Local agencies work to find, help Clinton County’s homeless

Many people have heard the phrase “home for the holidays.”

It’s part of many a Christmas song. It’s even a movie title.

But what if you have no home for the holidays … or any time of year?

Clinton County may not be home to any big cities, but that does not mean there are not homeless people here.

The usual image of a homeless person conjures up a man or woman sleeping in a stairway, under a bridge or in a car.

Clinton County has facilities for these unlucky people.

The Clinton County Housing Coalition is ready to help those who have lost their apartments or homes.

Evictions happen often … leaving people — single men and women, families and children — without shelter.

Indeed, the center and its affiliated services and programs – The Life Center, The Merit House, Rapid Rehousing and Homeless Prevention programs – are busier than many may believe.

To date in 2019, these local programs have served 193 clients, with some repeats.

They include 38 single men at The Merit House, and 16 households totaling 28 clients, 10 of whom were children.

Rapid Rehousing has worked with 56 households totaling 102 clients.

The Life Center house is at 330 E. Main Street in downtown Lock Haven. It is available for single women, families, or mothers with children.

Directly behind the Life Center is the Merit House, available on a nightly basis for single men.

On a recent visit to The Life Center, Senior Case Manager Keshia Conway and Vice President Jeff Rich explained the way the two shelters work. They also gave a tour.

There is room for up to 14 people.

The Life Center has four private bedrooms, and one can be restructured to house a large family. There are two bathrooms, two living rooms, a dining room and kitchen. There is a washer and dryer, both donated by local businesses, and all laundry detergents are provided. A play room is crammed with fun toys any child would dream of.

Food is not provided but clients are free to use the kitchen.

The entire house is decorated with a calm, welcoming atmosphere.

At the Life Center, single women or families will have their own bedroom. The ideal time frame of a stay there is 30 to 90 days. During that time, Conway works with the resident to develop a living plan based on income. First and foremost is finding new housing, but she said she strongly recommends that the client finds employment, if they are not already working, so they have a budget to work with.

“I strongly encourage that they take the time while they are here to secure a job. If they qualify for Rapid Rehousing, we can help with a security deposit and first and last month’s rent,” Conway explained.

Simply put, saving money from their income allow residents to be more independent, Conway said.

Conway has a lot of experience at finding affordable housing, too.

Often, she said, private landlords are more flexible than public housing in taking on renters with a tentative past.

Public housing has strict rules that some clients of The Life Center may not qualify for, i.e. past criminal records or drug use.

Also, private landlords can sometimes be persuaded to give a break, at least initially, to a potential renter with a small and new income.

“We have great relationships with some of the local landlords,” Conway said.

She also explained that in a college town such as Lock Haven, rents tend to be higher because many times there will be several people sharing the expense of one apartment.

The recent Marcellus Shale natural gas activity also drove rents up for a time, she noted.

That can make things very difficult for a single person, or especially a single parent looking for room for their family, plus child care, transportation, food and all the other needs in life.

This is part of the magic of the Clinton County Housing Coalition: Staff help people get on their feet financially, too.

Besides providing clients with funds to get them started with housing, the Clinton County Housing Coalition also offers budget counseling for up to 12 months after a client has relocated on their own.

Conway is careful to point out what clients could do to save money in their shopping habits, without judging what they buy. She just makes sure the necessities are the highest priorities.

In addition to shelter and budget counseling, CCHC also coordinates with other agencies involved in the client’s life. They work closely with agencies providing addiction care, domestic violence, doctors, and veterans affairs to make sure their clients go to their appointments and meet their life goals and also to make sure all agencies are on the same page.

Conway said, “The Life Center is part of the Eastern Pennsylvania Continuum of Care’s Connect to Home coordinated entry system. Those experiencing homelessness should call 2-1-1 to begin an assessment for services. Clients are prioritized on a community queue and referred to appropriate services. The Life Center receives referrals directly from the community queue and contacts clients to schedule further assessment.”

Funding is provided by donations and HUD grants, primarily Emergency Solutions Grants from the Department of Commerce and Economic Development in PA. Although the grants are usually quite large, they usually immediately cover expenses that are already ongoing.

Rich explained, “We submit the grant application and hopefully will get a grant. Since 2013 we have gotten variable grants. Staffing is one line item that they sometimes lower so we have to make due with less staffing those years.”

That is why fundraising and donations are so important and appreciated, they said.

Two fundraisers that have been very successful are a Color Run and the very popular annual Daddy Daughter Dance, which will take place in February 2020.

The Merit House is directly behind the Life Center. It is a renovated garage and can house up to four men at a time.

Sadly, “It is almost always full,” Conway said.

The procedure for admittance to the Merit House is fairly simple. A client arrives between the hours of 6 to 8 p.m. and a caseworker will either admit them or let them know that the shelter is full.

New clients are screened for past issues, but very few men are turned away.

New clients are given a new change of clothes if they accept, and are strongly encouraged to shower and to launder their existing clothing.

All laundry and toiletry items are provided for free. Coats and blankets have been donated by the Outsiders Biker Club. Walmart has donated clothes and underwear.

Churches regularly donate and many local businesses donate items. Donations of new items are always welcome, Rich said.

Food is not provided but there is a microwave and two small refrigerators. There is snack food and Ramen noodles and other small meals in evidence.

Again, donations of snacks are welcome, Conway said.

The two shelters have been a blessing for many people since 2013.

The Merit House has sheltered 116 men, from teenagers to men in their seventies.

Some are military veterans.

Some are disabled.

Some stay just one night; others stay for several months.

The Life Center has housed over 300 residents in that same amount of time, and in addition the Clinton County Housing Coalition, has helped 83 households that were at risk; in other words, households that were facing eviction.

The Housing Coalition is not connected to the Housing Authority, but Rich is also director of the Housing Authority.

In fact, they work so closely that they have entered an agreement whereby the authority does the books, paperwork and payroll for the coalition, allowing the caseworkers at the coalition to be free to work with clients.

Conway and Rich believe that, working together, the various agencies are meeting the needs of the homeless in Clinton County.

But that needs is ongoing, they said, and is seemingly increasing.

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