Who are the Homeless in State College?
Yesterday, WPSU's Kate Lao Shaffner talked to folks with Centre County's Out of the Cold and Hearts for the Homeless programs, which seek to provide respite for the homeless during the winter months. Here's the second part of the series, about the broader issues of homelessness in the Centre region.
Whitney Hunsinger is sitting in the living room of Centre House, a homeless shelter in downtown State College. Her daughters, who are two and four, are coloring and watching TV. Hunsinger is nine months pregnant.
"If it's just me, I could sleep on somebody's couch and bounce from place to place. But it's not just me. It's a whole family."
Hunsinger arrived at the shelter in mid-January. She had to drop out of a job-training program because of her pregnancy, which then meant she lost daycare assistance. She doesn't have family nearby to help.
Hunsinger has found a place to stay in Centre House, one of three permanent homeless shelters in State College. It’s the only one of the three that’s open to men, women, and families. (The other two shelters serve women and youth, respectively.). Centre House started as a grassroots effort between local churches and the community in 1984. The current location on Nittany Ave has been open since 1987. The building blends in with the other houses on the street—there’s not even a sign that identifies it as a shelter. Ron Quinn, the director of the shelter, says it's so people don't feel stigmatized.
Quinn has been the director of Centre House and its parent organization, Housing Transitions, for more than 25 years. He says Centre House, which has space for fifteen people, sees a lot of folks like Hunsinger who don’t have nearby family or any other support network. He attributes this to the transient nature of the State College community.
"One of the first questions you ask when you meet someone from the State College area or the Centre region is 'Where are you from?' So what that means is a lot of people don’t have support services here," says Quinn.
Quinn says the lack of a safety net might be one factor of homelessness, but people would be surprised by how complicated the various causes of homelessness actually are. He says many people think it's always an economic issue, or a lack of affordable housing, that sends people to the streets. But folks become homeless for many reasons.
While the public face of Housing Transitions is Centre House, the organization offers services beyond just putting a roof over peoples’ heads. There are case managers who help guests look for long-term affordable housing and a job. The shelter also offers classes in life skills like budgeting, parenting, and job seeking.
Housing Transitions also provides services to prevent homelessness, such as finding affordable housing alternatives, resources for families in financial distress, and in-home assistance for people who, through injury or illness, are not able to work for a period of time. Last year, the organization served almost 600 family units in its various programs, a number that might surprise those who see State College as a fairly affluent town.
Homeless can happen to anybody
Natalie Corman is the director for Centre County’s Adult Services office. Corman says although she was born and raised in Center County, she didn’t know there were homeless shelters in the area until she was in college. She says most people similarly don't realize the extensiveness of homeless in Centre County.
Corman says homeless can happen to anybody.
"People are often living paycheck to paycheck. When one medical bill comes up that ends up taking three months of their rent away to pay for it, I think people are struggling every day to make their ends meet. It happens in our community," says Corman.
And Corman’s office has the numbers to back this up. Her team leads a point-in-time count of the homeless and unsheltered in Centre County every January. They go to laundromats, truck stops, 24-hour restaurants, parks, businesses, human services agencies to try to make contact with those without homes.
This January 29, Corman’s team counted 3 individuals who are unsheltered and 24 adults and 4 children living in Centre County’s 3 permanent shelters and the Out of the Cold program, a temporary nighttime shelter that runs from October – April. It’s worth pointing out that a point-of-time count is just that—the numbers indicate how many homeless there are on only one specific day. And that just includes those who are identified.
Corman says there are certainly those who won't acknowledge their homelessness--those who are working full- or part-time and living out of their car or sleeping on a friends couch.
"No one looking at me would know"
Heidi, who prefers not to share her last name, lived in her car for five months after a difficult marital separation three years ago. She says her experience being homeless taught her that homelessness is complicated—you never know who around you might not have a home.
She remembers being in a grocery store and realizing no one around her would know that she's homeless.
“No one looking at me would know that when I leave this door, I’m going to put my groceries in my car and eat, and then find someone to park, and then go to sleep," says Heidi. "They can’t see that in me, I don’t know who else in the store doesn’t have a place to go or has lost everything in their life that they can depend on."
Heidi was able to hide that she was homeless from her kids and her employer, by being careful not to appear homeless, even if it meant sneaking into hotel bathrooms to get regular showers. Heidi never thought homelessness would ever happen to her.
"I always thought there would be somebody, you know, I wouldn’t ever end up in my car because you know, there’s so many people out there. Of course I could find help somewhere," she says.
After Heidi five months of living in her car, she decided to find help at the Women’s Resource Shelter. She says she avoided going earlier because she knew the shelter generally limits stays to one month, and Heidi didn’t want to use up the month before the weather turned cold. But she also said it was just difficult to go somewhere and let go of what control she did have of her life.
Corman and Quinn agree it’s important for the homeless—and those who are facing the possibility of homelessness—to get help. Hunsinger says she’s just happy to have a safe place to live while she waits to have her baby and adjusts to life as a mother of three.
Whitney says, "It’s a good place to get your mind together. It’s one place that you can go and know they’ll help you get on your feet no matter what your situation is without judging you."