What does homelessness look like in Lancaster County? It depends on the location. In more urban areas like Lancaster City and Harrisburg, some homeless people can be seen living on the streets. In more rural areas like Elizabethtown and surrounding communities, homelessness is less visible.
“The nature of homelessness is different than the classic image of someone that you see on TV that’s living on the street,” Interim Director of the Center for Community and Civic Engagement (CCCE) Joel Janisewski said. “Rural homelessness is more hidden because people are more spread out geographically, and it’s not obvious what the scale of the problem is.”
An average of 360 people experiences homelessness in Lancaster County a day, according to the Lancaster County Coalition to End Homelessness (LCCEH) website.
This homeless population consists of men, women and children of all ages. Forty percent have jobs.
According to the LCCEH website, the main reason for homelessness in Lancaster County is family disruption, which includes sudden events like fire, the death of a family member, domestic violence, job loss and divorce. Other reasons include lack of affordable housing, disability and high medical costs.
The main contributing factor of homelessness in Lancaster County, according to the LCCEH website, is being cost burdened, which means a household pays 50 percent or more of its income for rent/mortgage, utilities and transportation. Seventy-two percent of the households in Lancaster County are cost burdened.
According to the LCCEH website, the average cost of rent in Lancaster County is $834 per month. Making minimum wage ($7.25/hr), a person would have to work 107 hours a week to pay rent.
“All those things add up,” Janisewski said.
The cold nights and snowy weather of winter make being homeless more difficult and dangerous. For this reason, Elizabethtown Community Housing and Outreach Services (ECHOS) provides emergency winter shelter at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in downtown Elizabethtown from Dec. 4 to March 29.
About eight to 12 people stay at the winter shelter each night. They receive dinner, spend the night and eat breakfast while staying at the shelter.
“We’re seeing a lot of people who are homeless for the first time,” retired professor of social work and chair of the ECHOS board Dr. Peggy McFarland said. “Many people are only a paycheck away from being homeless.”
In addition to the winter shelter, ECHOS also provides case management services, rapid rehousing, permanent housing placement and other supportive services to those in the Bainbridge, Elizabethtown and Rheems areas who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
ECHOS is also connected to Elizabethtown College. In 2016, Etown led the grant writing efforts to secure funding to create ECHOS and currently oversees the not-for-profit’s funding and provides the organization with an administrative office.
Etown social work interns and work study students help ECHOS with information and referral, socialization and life skills education. They shadow case workers and gain experience in the ECHOS office across from the Elizabethtown Public Library.
Senior social work major Kristin Kurjiaka started interning at ECHOS in May 2017. Over that summer, she worked there full-time and had some clients. Now, she helps with referrals, creating internal forms and in a variety of other aspects of the small organization.
“It’s taught me a lot,” Kurjiaka said. “You see people who are homeless and do have jobs and who are trying to survive on minimum wage. It’s different than what you see on the news.”
Kurjiaka has also volunteered at Lancaster County Council of Churches’ overnight shelter for women and children run by the YWCA in Lancaster City. From her experience, she felt that people experiencing homelessness in urban areas have access to more resources, such as churches and grocery stores that are within walking distances, than people in more rural areas do. The shelter in Lancaster City was also bigger than the ECHOS shelter.
“It [the ECHOS winter shelter] is much more personalized and individual,” Kurjiaka said.
Etown students have helped the winter shelter in a variety of other ways, as well. Student athletes from the Student Athlete Association have donated extra food from the Market Place to the winter shelter through the Food Recovery Network. In 2017, they donated about 76 pounds of food.
Resident assistants (RAs) helped organize donated clothing and prepare the winter shelter by organizing the bins and sleeping mats. McFarland also recalled a time when a group of RAs helped a family of nine move into a new home.
Etown students have also volunteered at the winter shelter, greeting clients and serving meals. To volunteer, students need to complete training and pass clearances.
“It really is an opportunity for students to have a hands-on learning opportunity and feel really worthwhile in what they’re doing and have an ongoing experience,” McFarland said.
Other ways that Etown students have been involved with homelessness is through service trips with the CCCE. During the Urban Poverty Experience and Service Trip Friday, Nov. 3 to Saturday, Nov. 4, about 24 participants from the College lived in a shelter and helped with service projects at Bethesda Mission in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
There will be a similar Rural Poverty Experience and Service Trip to The Factory in Paradise, Pennsylvania Friday, April 6 to Saturday, April 7.
For more information about service trips, attend the CCCE service trip info session Tuesday, Feb. 6 from 3:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. in Nicarry Hall 232.