todaySpin - Feb. 5, 2009
Nightwatch at St. John the Divine, with a figurine

Finding room for the homeless in Bethlehem

By Dave Howell
February 5, 2009
[Updated February 12 and 18. Find updates below this story]  

    The recent cold weather has been a burden for all of us. For the homeless of Bethlehem, it has been a threat to their survival.
    Trinity Bethlehem’s Soup Kitchen is a five-day-a-week stopping point for many of Bethlehem’s poor. Since its beginnings twenty-five years ago, it has come to provide more than a hot lunch.
    Deacon Liz Miller, Soup Kitchen Coordinator, has become a guide to providing socialization for the often isolated clients, as well as bus passes, over-the-counter medicine, baked goods, assistance with medical issues, and housing assistance. Since last fall, social worker Marcie Lightwood has also been helping the guests. And Bethlehem Bishop Paul Marshall has been providing counseling twice a week.
    A crisis arose this winter when the Allentown Rescue Mission and the Sixth Street Shelter for Women were filled, and homeless Soup Kitchen guests could not find a place to stay indoors. One homeless client without resources was suffering from cancer, while another had an injured foot. Word went out on “Bethlehem of Pa,” the interactive internet list of the Diocese of Bethlehem, while Trinity rector Mother Laura Howell, Deacon Liz and Marcie Lightwood began many phone calls looking for help.

    Alternatives to permanent shelters can be useful beyond emergency weather protection. Some of the clients resist established shelters even when vacancies are available. Many are afraid of going to the police to get the necessary admittance voucher. There is no shelter space in Bethlehem, and many do not want to leave the area. And some people are too independent to conform to imposed rules.
    The Kitchen has given out survival packs which include a sleeping bag, a sleeping mat for the ground, portable food, a tarp, a clothesline, and a coffee can with candles and matches to use as a heater and stove. Everything can be rolled up and carried. Volunteers have even made visits under bridges, bringing kerosene to build fires.
    These measures are only suitable for less severe weather, however. “You can’t send somebody out with a sleeping bag in super-cold weather,” said Miller.
    The search for emergency assistance was discouraging. “You would be surprised at some of the agencies that turned us down,” she said.
    For the rest of this winter’s cold, however, four churches and the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley at the Forte Building have come together to provide shelter in Bethlehem for a combined seven nights a week.
    Scott Allen, priest-in-charge at St. Andrew’s Allentown/Bethlehem, said serving the homeless was a transformational experience for the church. “Volunteers are building relationships, calling people by their first names,” he said. “It allows upper middle class people to interact with the homeless in a positive way without prior assumptions, providing compassion instead of judgment. They are wonderful people, just like us, but with some bad breaks. It is healing for both sides.”
    Allen has two categories for the St. Andrew’s guests, which have ranged from eight to twelve people, including women. Some are “vocationally homeless,” never wanting to live in a house and perhaps not wanting employment. He said the second group “doesn’t want to be homeless. They have been laid off, or have mental health problems.”
    Allen said some churches asked, “’What is our liability exposure?’ instead of “’What is the gospel calling us to do?’” That makes St. Andrew’s mission more important, telling the homeless that “not all churches are out to reject them.”
    The Cathedral provides a shuttle service to St. Andrew’s on Friday night and arranges for pickup on Saturday morning. An evening meal and Saturday breakfast is provided. Guests can watch DVDs or play cards until they sleep, which Allen says is relatively early.    
    The Cathedral provides shelter twice a week. Father Tony Pompa, dean and rector, says volunteers come from various denominations. They also provide meals, with a crock pot of soup available for late arrivals, and DVDs. Pompa says some of the guests, which have totaled seven to fifteen people, have begun to request certain films.
    The Unitarian Universalist Church of the Lehigh Valley and New Covenant Christian Community Church    are also providing overnight stays. Grace Episcopal in Allentown has been made available during the day.
    Father Andrew Gerns, rector of Trinity Easton, described on the "Bethlehem of Pa" list a coordinated effort set up in Easton by Trinity Episcopal, St. John's Evangelical Lutheran, First United Methodist, First Presbyterian, First UCC, and the Salvation Army. If the Salvation Army and Safe Harbor go over the bed capacity, “downtown churches are called and asked to open up with cots and staffing provided by the Salvation Army ... We also worked with ProJeCt of Easton and Safe Harbor as well as the Easton Police Department.”
    Gerns said the City of Easton has cooperated in a way that could provide funding for local shelters that comes from outside the city should the governor declare a state of emergency due to extended cold weather. He also made the point that this winter's cold has not been all that unusual or unexpected and wondered how a city might handle a real cold-weather emergency if it cannot handle this kind of problem.
    Trinity Bethlehem contacted the Bethlehem Police Department, who were delighted to be able to drop clients at the five Bethlehem locations instead of transporting them to Allentown and dealing with extensive paperwork.
    A hoped-for collaboration between churches, nonprofit agencies, and the City of Bethlehem has been stalled by the latter’s refusal to return phone calls or to recognize visitors to City Hall.
    Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan said shelter is an issue for Northampton County to solve. The city can't provide shelter, he said, because it doesn't have any. The City disallowed the use of its parking garage for overnight accommodation.
    At the time this article was written, a meeting had finally been scheduled with the mayor and other officials. But the long wait has frustrated social worker Marcie Lightwood.
    “We have a small but growing population that seems to be out of luck when it comes to getting a roof over their heads,” she said. Lightwood and others have been hoping to develop a program similar to Philadelphia’s Code Blue or Allentown’s Homeless Outreach programs.
    “If they [the City] would only talk with us, we could help each other. We’re not looking for any government funding. It takes ideas, volunteers, and a compassionate heart,” she said. “Otherwise we will do the same scrambling next year.” Volunteers have come from the Lehigh Valley Friends Meeting (Quakers), LEPOCO, the Obama campaign, the United Way, and Grace Episcopal Allentown. 
    Mother Laura Howell said, “This problem is too large and too complex for any one agency.  There is no single solution.  If we all work together, we can solve each other’s problems for the benefit of the folks on the streets.  And for the sake of our own souls.  It’s also good business for the city to provide a compassionate face to the public.”
    Ironically, the churches fear that the Sands Casino, so zealously promoted by the city may increase the size of the Trinity Soup Kitchen population and add to homelessness as well, including young people attracted to the aura of casino glamour, part-time workers without benefits, and tapped-out gamblers.

[Free lance writer Dave Howell is a parishioner at Trinity Bethlehem.]

Find background info here.

February 12 update:
[Editor’s note] At press time, Diocesan Life learned of two developments in regard to the issue of homelessness and emergency shelter in Bethlehem.
The first is that seven Bethlehem faith communities have come forward to take one day a week during which they would offer overnight shelter when needed.
They are: (1) Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, 514 Third Avenue, (2) Church of the Manger, UCC, 1401 Greenview Drive, (3) St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 1900 Pennsylvania Avenue, (4) Cathedral Church of the Nativity, 321 Wyandotte Street, (5) Unitarian Universalist Church of the Lehigh Valley, 424 Center Street, (6) New Covenant Church, 23 East Broad Street, and (7) Christian Training Center/El Shaddai, 529 East Broad Street.
The second development is that several people who had taken the initiative on this issue were granted a meeting with Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan, Bethlehem Housing and Community Development planner Irene Woodward, and Bethlehem Health Bureau director Judith Maloney.
Trinity Bethlehem rector Laura Howell told Diocesan Life that candid discussion took place between the faith community advocates for the homeless and the city officials on the need for emergency shelter and on what the City of Bethlehem now does. Mayor Callahan named Ms. Woodward as the point person who would work with the faith community advocates to create a plan for dealing with both cold and hot weather crises. He also promised to have lunch at Trinity Bethlehem’s Soup Kitchen in the near future.

February 17 update:
He also came to Trinity Bethlehem’s Soup Kitchen today to get a first-hand look at what Trinity is doing and to help serve.

February 18 update:
Bethlehem churches band together to provide shelter for homeless
By Express-Times staff
February 17, 2009

A network of churches in Bethlehem is offering a respite from the elements for the area's homeless by opening their doors on a rotating basis.

A different church will open its doors each night of the week with volunteer "hosts" providing support.The Bethlehem program does not offer any services, just a warm place to sleep. "Because we're short-term and we don't offer any programs, we don't ask any questions," said Marcie Lightwood, a vestry warden and social worker with Trinity Episcopal. "Our only requirement is that they behave themselves."

The program is similar to one that has been operating in Warren County since July except that the New Jersey counterpart uses a weekly, not daily system. "I'm always impressed by what churches have done," said Bob Frankenfield, executive director of the Warren County Interfaith Hospitality Network. "It's restored my faith."

Here's the daily schedule for the network of churches in Bethlehem providing overnight shelter:
• Sunday: New Covenant Christian Community, 23 E. Broad St.
• Monday: Church of the Manger, 1401 Greenview Drive
• Tuesday: Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, 514 Third Ave.
• Wednesday: Unitarian Universalist Church, 424 Center St.
• Thursday: Cathedral Church of the Nativity, 321 Wyandotte St.
• Friday: St. Andrews Episcopal Church, 1900 Pennsylvania Ave.
• Saturday: El Shaddai Christian Training Center, 529 E. Broad St.


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