After leaving an abusive living situation, State College resident Helen Snyder slept in her car for a few days. She wasn’t sure how to rectify things — she feared she would lose her job if she had to continue using public restrooms to maintain personal hygiene.
“My biggest fear was, ‘I’m going to lose my job,’ ” she said. “You can’t show up to a job and be like, ‘Yeah, I haven’t showered in 10 days.’ ”
She found the address for Centre House, a Housing Transitions, Inc. program that provides case management and support for those facing housing issues. When she arrived at the East Nittany Avenue location, she said she was hoping that if they didn’t have a room to offer, she could at least use the shower.
Snyder joined the program at Centre House, working toward finding affordable, permanent housing during the seven months she stayed at the house. Because she had steady income from her job — and received a promotion during her stay at Centre House — as well as disability benefits, she said she had an extremely difficult time securing housing.
She made too much money to qualify for subsidized housing, but couldn’t afford the rents of many of the apartments in downtown State College on her own. She said it was the support of the staff and fellow residents that helped her figure out her situation.
For those who come to Centre House when no beds are available, staff members have a new resource to direct visitors to, which they say is much-needed. The Out of the Cold: Centre County overflow shelter, a community-organized program dedicated to serving a growing need for nightly housing in State College, began its first season in November and, as its season ended recently, is already making plans to expand.
** Offering the bare necessities **
The concept of the Out of the Cold: Centre County program is simple, said Kendra Gettig, an outreach coordinator with Calvary Baptist Church and a volunteer at Centre House and Out of the Cold.
Guests usually arrive between 9 and 10 p.m. and are given a cot, blanket and either a snack or a meal, along with a warm drink. Breakfast is offered in the morning as well, Gettig said. The local food bank donated some of the food offered to guests and the American Red Cross donated the cots, she said.
There are no eligibility requirements for guests, which means that those who are not allowed to stay at the Centre House because of criminal and substance abuse issues are referred to Out of the Cold.
Four local churches hosted guests for about a month each from November through the end of March: St. John’s United Church of Christ in Boalsburg, State College Presbyterian Church, Calvary Baptist Church in State College and University Mennonite Church in State College.
The Centre House holds up to 19 guests at a time, but is typically full, Gettig said. This creates a need for emergency housing. Out of the Cold: Centre County provides overflow locations for those who cannot find a place to stay at a permanent shelter, Out of the Cold volunteer coordinator Monica Ouellette said.
Between Nov. 21 and March 31, 35 guests spent nights in the various Out of the Cold locations, according to numbers provided by Ouellette. In February, there was only one night when the two nightly volunteers were sent home because the Out of the Cold services were not requested, Ouellette said. Each guest’s stay ranged from a single night to 16 or 17 days, she said.
Overall, the program was successful in its first year, Ouellette said, and plans are in the works to coordinate with more churches and perhaps expand the program to continue into April.
While Ouellette said the program hopes it won’t see a large growth in those who need services next year — a sign that would indicate a larger housing problem than program organizers realized — she expects to see more guests next year as word of the program spreads.
**Hidden housing problems**
Because rent prices are competitive in State College, it can be hard for many who come to Centre House to find affordable living situations. Some residents stay at Centre House for months at a time while they search for housing, Housing Transitions, Inc. Development and Community Relations Coordinator Susanna Paul said.
The need for services has increased, Paul said, as Centre County is an expensive place to find housing compared to the wages available. To illustrate this point, Paul gave the example of a former resident who has found housing, but has to work two jobs for 60 hours a week to maintain his residency.
Gettig says Centre County has a lot of “hidden poverty,” which is often obscured by the high housing prices students and their families can afford to pay.
People are often surprised to learn that there’s a homeless shelter in downtown State College that is so busy, Paul said. People often have a mental picture that those who are homeless are also without jobs, or that it’s easy to spot a homeless person, she said.
But in Centre County, there’s not one face of homelessness.
“Sometimes the housing situation is the first thing that falls apart, but the pieces are all still there,” Paul said.
While Snyder was staying at the program, other residents included a family with two young kids, a single father with a son and several single individuals with no kids. Some ended up at Centre House because they lost jobs, fell behind on bills or were leaving a bad situation.
It was a “varied experience” of people, Snyder said. Snyder said she speaks openly about her time in housing crisis to shatter stereotypes associated with homelessness.
**Positives all around**
It’s a mutually positive relationship between those who reap the benefits of programs in the region like Out of the Cold and Centre House and those who staff the programs.
Ouellette said it’s important to recognize that all of the churches that hosted the shelter and community members who volunteered with the Out of the Cold program reported that they had a positive experience. In it’s first year, 166 people in State College trained to be volunteers, she said.
On a similar note, Snyder said the staff at Centre House provided a support system for her at a time when she so desperately needed one.
“They’re really happy to talk to you, whether you had a really bad day and needed someone to vent to or had a really good day and needed someone to share it with,” she said.
And they offer more than just conversation, Snyder said.
“The staff there are extremely kind and caring, and they go out of their way to make you feel like you’re a human,” she said. “When you first become homeless, you feel like you’re invisible to society.”