Individuals experiencing homelessness are frequently stigmatized and misrepresented by mainstream media. While there are plenty of cases where mental health and substance abuse have contributed to an individual’s experience with homelessness, the majority of people who are experiencing homelessness fell on hard times for one reason or another.
In Lancaster County, 40 percent of individuals that are homeless have jobs. The issue is that many households are cost burdened, with families spending nearly 50 percent of their income on mortgages, rent and utilities.
It is common for individuals or families to be “living beyond their means,” meaning that the loss of a job, a pay cut or a medical crisis could devastate their financial standing. Shelters across the county have worked to meet the needs of the homeless population, but most are only able to support the needs of a portion of the homeless community.
“There are no shelters in Lancaster County that do what we do, that take men, women and children,” said Janice Davis, administrative assistant for the biology department and founder of the Etown Winter Shelter. “That’s what makes us unique and what sets us apart.”
After serving for 13 years as a senior pastor at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, Davis’ husband Skip began to recognize a need for homeless services and outreach programs in the Elizabethtown area. Together, the couple began to research and gather more information on the issue of homelessness by reaching out to the Lancaster County Coalition to End Homelessness (LCCEH).
“We heard there was a need, so we went to the town with it,” Davis said.
In the fall of 2015, the Davises launched the Etown Winter Shelter out of the basement of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church with the help of volunteers from the local community. By the end of the winter season, the shelter had served 18 clients, averaging seven to nine clients per night.
“The town came together and really supported this project with their own blood, sweat and tears,” Davis mentioned. When she started the shelter, she had no idea how much it was going to cost to run. The donations that came in from people in the community are what sustained the shelter.
“As people came to the shelter, they brought along their questions and concerns,” Davis said. “It became apparent that we needed to provide them with more than just a place to sleep in the basement of the church.”
This past summer, Elizabethtown College secured approval of a Lancaster County Human Services Block Grant that approved the creation of Etown Community Housing and Outreach Services (ECHOS).
ECHOS focuses on expanding service delivery to individuals and families who are experiencing homelessness or who are at risk of experiencing homelessness. The ECHOS office, located in Nicarry Hall, is run by two social work case managers, Debra Jones and Kim Grey.
“It’s all about directly meeting with the people who really need the help,” Grey said. “This year, any person who comes through the shelter will automatically become one of our ECHOS clients.”
Both Jones and Grey agree that their main goal is to help get these individuals and families experiencing homelessness back on their feet as soon as possible.
“We tend to think of a person experiencing homelessness as an individual in a big coat, sitting on the side of the road,” Grey said. “The individuals here in Elizabethtown that we are seeing don’t fit that view.”
With the support of Etown, ECHOS has partnered with faculty, staff and academic departments on campus. Dr. Peggy McFarland, associate professor of social work and director of field instruction, has worked with ECHOS as their clinical supervisor.
“The whole town has come together, and that’s what I love,” McFarland stated. “The college town has just wrapped their arms around this whole program.”
“It’s a chance to do something meaningful for the community, and I think that’s really important,” junior social work major Carly Foster said.
Foster is currently interning with the ECHOS program. Over the past two months, she has been exposed to ECHOS’ mission and clients and has seen the need in the Etown community.
Foster meets with clients who are either in temporary living situations or are at-risk of being evicted from their current homes to help connect them with the necessary resources.
“I think we owe it to ourselves to just be the change you wish to see in the world,” Foster stated. ECHOS provides students with a convenient and accessible way to give back to the local community, according to Foster.
In addition to needing volunteers to work at the shelter, ECHOS needs a volunteer transportation team to take clients to appointments, service meetings and stores.
It also needs a moving team to assist clients as they transition into local apartments, and a mentoring team to meet with individual clients and provide support. ECHOS hopes to receive donations of furniture, clothing, food and cleaning supplies for apartment startups.
The ECHOS staff encourages students to come out to the final volunteer training session for this winter season, which takes place Wednesday Nov. 9 from 4 to 6 p.m. in Hoover 110. The training will educate volunteers on the best practices to use when working with clients and how to break down the stigma attached to the homeless population
To sign up for the training session or to learn more about how to get involved with the Etown Winter Shelter, contact Janice Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org.