By Cliff B. Lewis
The state of homelessness in Lancaster County is not faring well in these first months of 2010: The effects of a sluggish national economy have swiftly trickled down to society’s lowest income brackets; a local shelter (Crispus Attucks) has recently closed its doors, pulling about 20 beds from our social safety net; and a cold, blustery winter relentlessly bears down on both rich and poor. Fortunately, Lancaster’s homeless services are rising to the challenge.
According to Ken Marzinko, coordinator of the School District of Lancaster’s Homeless Students Project, “I’ve been working with the homeless population for 18 years, and certainly this feels like the most challenging time that I’ve experienced.” Marzinko’s program, which serves to connect homeless students and their families with the local support network, typically serves about 900 students each school year. This year they expect to see at least 1,000.
“I can assure you that my partner and I are getting more requests for help from parents directly and from school staff who have been made aware of housing losses and job losses,” Marzinko said, “It’s been very busy this school year.” Marzinko said that he does not know of any homeless children being left to the street, since they are seen as a top priority for local service organizations.
It was announced in late summer 2008 that Crispus Attucks would be closing a Lancaster City homeless shelter, due to lack of funding. The center had offered room for 20. In response, Water Street Ministries added 60 beds in its Community Emergency Shelter in January of last year.
According to Maria Schaszberger, spokesperson for Water Street Ministries, the number of people accessing the mission’s services has increased by 26% since last year.
Schaszberger said that the mission has not been experiencing frequent overflow in its men’s shelter, with an average of 10 beds remaining open each night. In the event that those beds are full, the center can at least provide escape from the weather: “Otherwise, there’s a hallway at the Water Street Mission we use for men to get out of the cold and be safe,” Schaszberger explained.
To increase the local capacity for sheltering women and children, Water Street Ministries has partnered with the Council of Churches’ Winter Shelter, which is now open exclusively to that demographic. “We can’t take any chances when we’re working with children,” Schaszberger said.
According to Gretchen Lichty, coordinator of the Winter Shelter, no women or children have had to be turned away from services this year. The program is a collective effort of several religious congregations, one of which will host the shelter within their premises each week. On the coldest of nights, Lichty said, the shelter draws no more than 21 women—well within their capacity.
“Now there’s just no way we’ll fill up,” Lichty said. As Shaszberger put it, “Between the Water Street Mission and our partnership with the Winter Shelter, we believe we are prepared to meet the need this winter.”