Homelessness in the Lehigh Valley

Imagine yourself as homeless. If you’ve always had a roof over your head, a steady job, and two nickels to rub together, it might seem like homelessness is something that happens to other people.

But homelessness can happen to anyone. Anyone. It doesn’t discriminate, and it can happen almost out of nowhere, and faster than you realize.

Why Homelessness Happens

“Homelessness can occur for a variety of reasons,” explained Jim Byrnes, CEO of the Allentown Rescue Mission. “Often it is a series of dominoes in a guest’s life that happen in quick succession, such as loss of employment or an eviction, with little support to sustain community-based living during the lapse of income or housing.”

“Couple that with a high occurrence of mental health and addiction co-morbidity,” Byrnes continued, “and often criminal records, missing identification, and chronic medical issues, and the cycle of homelessness becomes very difficult to overcome without the commodity of time and safety that a shelter aims to provide. Plus, a criminal record results in limited access to employment beyond short-term assignments through staffing agencies, which do not pay much or provide sustained income off of which to rebuild a life.”

The Allentown Rescue Mission in downtown Allentown has been serving the needs of the homeless in the Lehigh Valley for more than 100 years. It provides rescue, rehabilitation and restoration for homeless men in crisis through religious-centered programs based on accountability and compassion. A non-denominational, social services organization, it provides critically needed goods and services to homeless and impoverished men, without regard to race, color, creed, national origin or religion. The organization’s emergency shelter, known as the Gateway Center, functions as an entry point to the facility’s long-term programs for many men.

“Our Gateway Center is intended to provide basic care, meaning that we feed them, house them, provide clothing, and encourage restoration through informal relationship building between staff and guests,” Byrnes said. “In the shelter, guests receive support in money management, connecting to community agencies, obtaining access to insurance, or replacing missing identification, clothing and footwear, and intentional case management services.”

A New System to Track and Assist the Homeless

“Years ago there were several individual initiatives across the Lehigh Valley to help the homeless but there was no valley-wide solution,” explained Marc Rittle, Vice President of Impact for United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley (UWGLV). “Shelters were scattered and there was no effective way of prioritizing need.”

UWGLV, along with other nonprofit agencies, helped to form the Lehigh Valley Regional Homelessness Advisory Board for a larger collective impact approach to the issue. The group contracted with Pennsylvania 2-1-1 East to manage Lehigh Valley Coordinated Entry, a standardized and coordinated assessment and referral service.

PA 2-1-1 is a free, confidential, non-emergency, comprehensive information and referral service that connects Lehigh and Northampton county residents with the health and human services they need. Assistance can be provided in a variety of areas including housing, food insecurity, substance use disorders, and many others.

“A person calls PA 2-1-1, which then conducts a short screening to determine if the caller meets the established criteria of being currently homeless or about to become homeless,” Rittle explained. “From there, those individuals who are determined to meet the criteria for homelessness are referred to one of three regional walk-in sites for further assessment with an intake caseworker, and will then be referred to the appropriate program. For adults, the walk-in locations are the Lehigh Conferences of Churches in Allentown and Bethlehem, and the Third Street Alliance in Easton. For youth, it’s Valley Youth House in Bethlehem.”

UWGLV and PA 2-1-1 reported that between January 1, 2017 and Oct 1, 2017:

  • 1,135 people called the 2-1-1 system and were screened
  • 824 people were identified as homeless and awaited assistance
  • The difference between the 824 and the 1,135 is that those individuals did not meet the definition of “homeless.” In those instances 2-1-1 provides assistance and referrals to resources that are able to meet their needs in other ways.
  • 209 of those people were under the age of 25 (children/youth/young adults).
  • 564 currently remain on the list to receive housing services, meaning the balance of the people found housing or otherwise resolved their situation.

“Prior to this service starting on January 1, 2017, we estimated that there were approximately 750 homeless individuals in the region” Rittle said. “What this new information tells us is that there are more homeless people in the Lehigh Valley than we thought there were, and that they are not just individual men and women, but also families and children. There’s more work to be done.”


NOTE: This article is part of a series of articles on Homelessness in the Lehigh Valley. Please read our other articles on childhood and youth homelessness, the LVHN Street Medicine Program, and the state of home affordability in the Lehigh Valley.

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