By Libby House and Bill Lewellis
On April 20, Grace House at 112 North Fifth Street, Allentown, a newly renovated three-story brick and stucco property next to Grace Episcopal Church, will welcome its first homeless residents.
The creation and development of a group home to provide permanent housing in apartments for six chronically homeless persons began a few years ago with a conversation between Robert Wilkins, president of the board of New Bethany Ministries from 1998 to 2010, and Elizabeth House, senior warden of Grace Church.
It was the brain child of Wilkins, House, William Kuntze, former executive director of New Bethany and Patrick Malloy, former rector of Grace Episcopal Church. Their initiative received enthusiastic moral support as well as financial commitment from Bethlehem Diocese Bishop Paul V. Marshall.
Funding for Grace House came from a wide variety of sources. Grace Church donated to New Bethany Ministries half the value of the property which for nearly 15 years had served as the church's headquarters for its former AiDS Outreach Ministry that closed in December 2007 when federal and state funding dried up. The $500,000 costs for renovating the facility were paid for by a $250,000 grant from the Federal Home Loan Bank, Pittsburgh, through KNBT grants from Lehigh County and the City of Allentown, and additional money generously provided by Episcopal Ministries of the Diocese of Bethlehem, the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem, the PA Department of Community and Economic Development, Senator Pat Brown, Representative Jennifer Mann, The Century Fund, and individual donors.
The new group home will become part of the City of Allentown's First Lady's Commission to End Chronic Homelessness in 10 years. The six individuals who will gain the safety and stability of a permanent residence through this project represent 10 percent of those described as chronically homeless in Allentown in 2010.
Grace House will be a joint project of New Bethany Ministries of Bethlehem, sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem and community operated, and Grace Allentown, a parish of the Diocese of Bethlehem. The facility's location in downtown Allentown will allow New Bethany Ministries, which has been working to address the needs of homeless people and others on the margins of our society, primarily in Bethlehem, for 25 years, to expand its outreach. it will also allow the Grace Church community to continue to develop and increase its mission and ministry to the people of the inner city neighborhoods of Allentown, where it already provides strategic services to the poor.
in addition to New Bethany and Grace Church, the Lehigh County Conference of Churches will play a crucial role in supporting and supervising the residents who will live in the facility by providing rent subsidies and social services. The organization will select the individuals who are to live in the group home and will assign a caseworker to help see that those living in Grace House will have the assistance they need to help them become independently functioning and contributing members of the community. They will assist with access to public benefit funding, subsidized meals, clothing services, referrals for medical and mental health treatment, and job skills training.
Grace Episcopal Church houses several ministries that will also provide additional support for the group home residents, such as supplemental groceries through its food pantry, Grace Community Foundation which provides supplemental food in a respectful manner to some 6,000 ethnically, religiously and racially diverse persons in need every year; access to a job placement counselor through the City's Weed and Seed Program; a GED program for those who dropped out of school who wish to work to earn their diplomas; the iMPACT juvenile offender program; services from paralegals from North Penn Legal Services; and blood pressure screenings. The church hopes that the tenants may wish to become part of the Grace Church community and will benefit from the possibilities that can be derived from relationships offered there.
Once described at a national conference because of its outreach ministries as the largest small church in the United States, Grace Church also owns Grace Montessori School, which provides scholarships to one-third of its diverse student body of more than 100 in a newly built, state-of-the-art facility.
Episcopal Ministries of the Diocese of Bethlehem, Inc., dba New Bethany Ministries, is an agency of the Diocese of Bethlehem and as such is a church-sponsored, non-profit corporation whose purpose is to organize and operate housing and social ministries with related services in the geographic area of the Diocese of Bethlehem for the care and relief of the needy, poor, displaced and other distressed persons.
With its long history and experience in battling homelessness, New Bethany Ministries brings compassion and expertise to the Grace House initiative at a level that cannot be overstated. This ministry of The Episcopal Church summons the talents of approximately 20 employees and 600 volunteers to serve the needs of the homeless, the hungry, the mentally ill, and the poor. In addition to managing its many shelters, homes, and apartments and providing much needed social services, the agency also serves breakfast and lunch daily in its hospitality center in South Bethlehem and offers emergency food pantry services. it is hoped that the unique combination of experience, expertise, services, proximity, and common mission of these three social justice power houses, New Bethany Ministries, Grace Church, and LCCC, will serve as a model for faith-based groups wishing to work together to address the problems of the most desperate of individuals living in our society, making a permanent difference in their lives that will restore them to dignity and independence.
New Bethany's 25-year history has included one deep valley. It was buried in debt in 1998. Low morale had spread through the staff as its executive director and two executive board members resigned. The staff had to be cut from 16 to 10. The organization was close to going out of business. That’s when Wilkins, retired senior vice president of finance for Bethlehem Steel and former Bethlehem city administrator took a leave of absence from his business to serve as interim executive director during New Bethany’s crisis when the ministry was having a hard time finding the $1,000 a day in donations (half the budget) it takes to operate its shelters, subsidized housing and meal programs. That's when the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem, New Bethany’s 1983 founder, stepped in.
The Diocese of Bethlehem provided New Bethany the security for a loan and lent the charity $200,000 without interest. Bishop Paul Marshall convened a “Blue Ribbon” panel of leaders in business, social service, church and philanthropic fields to explore the problems and challenges facing New Bethany. The panel met during the last quarter of 1998 and offered a series of recommendations to the New Bethany board. By 2001, the charity cut its annual spending plan by $100,000. It got back up to a full staff of 16. It began offering just as many services as before its financial fall.
[Mrs. Elizabeth "Libby" House is senior warden of Grace Episcopal Church, Allentown, and director of the Grace Montessori School. Canon Bill Lewellis, now retired, served for nearly 25 years as communication minister for the Diocese of Bethlehem.]
Download: (1) An outline of the origin of New Bethany Ministries, by Bill Lewellis, (2) New Bethany's Two-Year Recovery, by Bill Lewellis, Diocesan Life, Dec. 2001, (3) Remarks by Beth Reed at Grace House open house, 4/7/11.