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State College Borough, partner agencies adapt homeless aid, prevention efforts during pandemic

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Centre Helps Volunteers

Volunteers from Centre Helps took time off of work to bond and carve pumpkins together.

The State College Borough and its partner agencies work year-round to prevent homelessness and assist those experiencing it.

With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, however, the borough and its partners knew they needed to adapt their operations due to the increased number of community members requiring their services.

In order to do this, Maureen Safko, a planner in the State College Community Development and Housing Department, said the borough began looking for ways to allocate additional funding toward the homelessness support and prevention agencies it has partnered with throughout the years.

Safko said the borough does not work directly with homeless community members, but it is permitted by the federal government to allocate 15% of its Housing and Urban Development grants, totalling approximately $32,000, to organizations that assist these individuals.

These organizations include Housing Transitions, Centre Safe, Centre Helps, the Centre County Youth Service Bureau, House of Care and Out of the Cold.

The Center for Alternatives in Community Justice, an organization that dedicates money to preventing evictions, is an additional partner of the borough.

Safko said each grant the borough gives to its partners ranges from $5,000 to $29,000.

The borough also has an inclusionary housing ordinance that requires private developers who construct buildings with six or more residential dwelling units to make the rent in 10% of the units “affordable,” according to Safko.

Safko said rent, including utilities, that is equal to 30% of the occupant’s income would be considered affordable.

In order to accommodate this ordinance, developers can build affordable units within the building or at a separate offsite location, which has been the case with the Rise on East College Avenue and the Metropolitan on West College Avenue, respectively.

Developers can also opt out of building affordable units and pay an equivalent fee to assist the borough in its housing efforts, which was the case with the HERE complex on Heister Street.

Safko added that the Community Development and Housing Department works to provide a variety of housing prices within the borough to ensure affordable shelter for all community members.

According to Safko, the borough also has two community housing development organizations that offer funding to acquire, rehabilitate and resell homes — the State College Community Land Trust and the Home Foundation.

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With the onset of the pandemic, however, Safko said the increase in community members requiring assistance or experiencing homelessness caught the borough’s attention.

In order to ensure the borough and its partner agencies were all working together to diminish this issue as effectively as possible, they began having weekly Zoom meetings to discuss homelessness in the area and what each group needed in order to further its missions.

These meetings are continuing today, but occur every other week.

Through the meetings, Safko said the borough gained a better understanding of what each agency needed funding for, including personal protective equipment, additional sanitation materials and telehealth services.

By shifting around “old money” and combining $305,713 in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding from the federal government with $650,000 from the State College Inclusionary Housing Fund, Safko said the borough was able to dedicate $1,611,610 to addressing the heightened homelessness issue via its partners.

Additionally, Safko said the borough and its partners plan to utilize $24,500 of its last deposit of CARES Act funding to address immediate, short-term needs to set them up for long-term impacts in preventing homelessness.

This initiative, titled the Affordable Housing and Homelessness Services Gap Analysis and Action Plan, is still in the works. Safko said proposals for the initiative are due Nov. 5, and the borough hopes to award a contract by Nov. 20.

She added the research for this initiative will take place throughout the winter, and the borough aims to have a “solid” action plan by May 20.

“[We’re] trying to look at it in a holistic and comprehensive way,” Safko said.

Safko also said $25,000 of the $1,611,610 total was used to enter a partnership with Centre Helps.

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Leanne Lenz, the executive director of Centre Helps, said many people in State College and Centre County do not realize how significant the issue of homelessness is in the area on a regular basis, let alone with the increase induced by the pandemic.

“A lot of people who don’t normally need to ask for help, need to ask for help right now,” Lenz said.

According to Lenz, Centre Helps aims to “make a safety net for everyone in Centre County” facing any kind of crisis, including suicidal thinking, financial difficulties, food insecurity and homelessness.

“Whatever kind of crisis it is, we are that safety net so that people always have somewhere to start and somebody to talk to that’s going to provide them with a compassionate, non-judgemental, supportive response, as well as connect them with resources,” Lenz said.

Lenz added that the organization intends to be the first place people visit when they are in need of support, but are unsure of where to seek help.

Centre Helps hosts a 24-hour hotline through which its volunteers and official staff members offer emotional support as a partner of the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, as well as information and referrals to over 700 resources in the area.

According to Safko, another $4,800 of the borough’s total pandemic homeless aid funding went toward keeping Out of the Cold operational year-round.

Sarah Potter, the program manager of Out of the Cold, said the organization is only open during the winter months, but 2020 is the first year the nonprofit has been open all year.

“Although our name is Out of the Cold, we know that there’s never a good time to be homeless,” Potter said. “And even though we have warm summers, not having access to shelter or not being able to provide that in our community is something we would like to see change, and we’re working hard to make happen.”

Potter said the organization is a nonprofit and is one of four homeless shelters in Centre County. The others include Centre Safe, Housing Transitions’ Centre House, and the Centre County Youth Service Bureau’s Burrowes Street Youth Haven and Supportive Independent Living.

While the other homeless shelters are for victims of domestic violence, families and young adults, respectively, Potter said Out of the Cold is a catch-all shelter for any individual in need of housing assistance who does not fall into these categories.

According to Potter, Out of the Cold has a day shelter, which is open from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., and a night shelter, which runs from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m.

Out of the Cold Homeless Shelter, State College Presbyterian Church

The State College Presbyterian Church is one of the participating congregations for the Out of the Cold Homeless Shelter on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018.

The nonprofit operates out of several churches within the area, including Calvary Church in Boalsburg and Faith United Church of Christ in State College. Potter said the organization stays at one church for a couple of weeks at a time before moving on to the next.

She said it also connects individuals in need with resources in the community to get them “back on their feet and have homelessness be a short term, and not recurring event in their life.”

Lenz said Centre Helps had to “scramble” to route its hotline calls to people at home once the center started working remotely due to the pandemic.

She added that most of the volunteers working the hotline are Penn State students, many of whom had to return home after classes moved online in the spring.

“That was stressful, but we did manage to continue offering services without any gap whatsoever,” Lenz said. “We didn’t have to shut the hotline down, not even for five minutes, so we’re pretty proud of that.”

Centre Helps also has a case management program that can advocate for individuals or families, and temporarily help them find food, shelter and financial assistance. Within this realm, the nonprofit offers limited stays in hotel rooms or bus vouchers to get recipients to a place where they will be able to live while they are rebounding.

Lenz said Centre Helps mainly works to prevent homelessness before it occurs, which is partially why it has been helping more community members during the pandemic.

She said some community members had previously been “couch surfing,” but have now lost housing because people are less comfortable having guests in light of the pandemic.

Lenz said others who had been experiencing a tight financial situation prior to the pandemic are now struggling, or even facing homelessness, due to additional expenses or being out of work.

“People are in this financial situation that is going to take a long time to bounce back from... our economy is in a bad situation,” Lenz said.”It’s going to take a long time to bounce back from even if COVID went away tomorrow, which it’s not going to.”

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Although people were previously protected from losing their housing due to the federal moratorium on evictions based on non-payment of rent, Lenz said this rule has now been adjusted slightly and caused an increase in the calls Centre Helps receives.

With this adjustment, residents who want to make use of the eviction moratorium are now required to seek out their landlord with the appropriate paperwork to show that they cannot pay rent.

Since some residents do not know of the rule, or are unable to follow these requirements, Lenz said evictions have been increasing.

To handle the increased demand for this program, Lenz said Centre Helps used the borough’s $25,000 to hire a second case manager who will focus their efforts on the State College area.

Lenz said Centre Helps’ current goal is to prevent as many evictions as possible.

“The sooner somebody calls us and says ‘I’m behind on my rent,’ the more likely it is that we are going to be able to prevent them from becoming homeless,” Lenz said. “If they wait until they’ve got the eviction notice or later than that, it becomes a lot harder.”

In May 2020, Potter said Out of the Cold realized the pandemic was increasingly presenting issues for homeless individuals, as well as those who were “on the edge” of becoming homeless.

Potter added that during the “height of the pandemic,” Out of the Cold was housing 40 people in its shelter per night. Now, it is down to 20 individuals, which Potter said was the highest number of occupants the nonprofit usually reached prior to the pandemic.

With current social distancing regulations and occupancy limits, Potter said this increase in guests staying at the shelter made it difficult to maintain social distancing.

To keep guests safe and lighten the occupancy in the shelter, Potter said Out of the Cold has been housing some of its residents in hotel rooms.

Potter said the nonprofit also provides those staying in hotels with food so they can keep them quarantined. Health and temperature checks are performed regularly, as well.

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Because of how quickly costs for hotel rooms add up, Potter said Out of the Cold is now only using this method for those with a high risk for the virus.

The borough has also helped counteract some of the cost, and the nonprofit was able to raise about $40,000 for this and other pandemic-induced expenses via a fundraising campaign.

Even though Out of the Cold is still striving for more funding and volunteers to enhance its homeless aid efforts, Potter said she is proud of what the nonprofit and the rest of the borough has done to adapt during the pandemic.

“I’m so proud of my staff and our volunteers and our community who have been all so supportive,” Potter said. “Our staff has worked overtime for many weeks, and we’ve had volunteers that show up many nights a week after they’ve worked a full day, and it’s all so we can run our services at the level they’ve always been run and beyond.”

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Quincey Reese is a news features and investigations reporter for The Daily Collegian. She is a sophomore majoring in digital and print journalism with a minor in psychology.

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