Jan 28 2016 08:24am    Comments: 0    Categories: Community      Tags: homeless  

Daily Item- January 28, 2016

KULPMONT — Armed with flashlights and kits containing heavy blankets, toiletries and warm clothes, groups of people fanned out across the Valley searching for the homeless in abandoned buildings, parks, shopping malls and even hospital emergency rooms.

Expectations of finding a homeless person huddled up in the cold in Northumberland County were low for Brian Ambrose, the county’s housing coordinator.

It’s not that the homeless don’t exist in the Valley, he said.

People who have no place to call “home” in the winter months often take refuge on a friend’s couch or find a way to keep out of sight.

“We know they’re out there,” Ambrose said. “They’re very savvy and know where to hunker down during the winter. That’s why we call them the ‘hidden homeless.’”

After notifying local police, Ambrose, along with Eric Schimmel, Veterans Multi-Service Center outreach specialist, and Lari Thomas, financial literacy coordinator at Central Susquehanna Opportunities, spent two hours Wednesday night searching for displaced people in parks, pavilions and abandoned factories around Kulpmont and Marion Heights.

The three were among numerous groups doing similar homeless counts throughout the Valley, and beyond, as required in communities nationwide every January by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Ambrose said his department also takes part in a voluntary homeless count in August, when homeless people are more likely to be found in the area.

“That’s when you’ll find the homeless living in the woods or their cars,” he said.

Tom Dougher, executive director of the Gate House, a 24-bed shelter in Danville, took part in a similar search Wednesday night, visiting local emergency rooms and other areas throughout Montour County.

“This count is good, but it doesn’t really represent the real issue,” he said, echoing Ambrose’s characterization of the hidden homeless.

Most people who have no permanent home reach out for help only after they’ve worn out their welcome from “couch surfing,” or moving from one friend’s house to another, Ambrose said.

And some don’t want to accept help when it’s offered.

Just before Thanksgiving 2013, Ambrose found an older man living in the corner of a shed at a vacant plaza in Shamokin on a bed of leaves covered by plywood.

The man had accepted cups of coffee and food from people in town who knew about his plight, but when shelter was offered by Ambrose and his department, he declined, saying others were in more dire need.

The man changed his mind a few days later. He was put up in a hotel and offered resources that eventually helped get him back on his feet.

“He’s now living on his own and able to pay his own way. He’s not even on food stamps,” said Ambrose.

For those people who do seek temporary shelter, the options are few in the Valley.

All 35 beds at Haven Ministry Center in Sunbury are occupied, said Executive Director Christy Zeigler, who houses the homeless anywhere from 30 days to nine months.

There are four families at the city shelter, but most of the people turning up at the door are single men and women.

To accommodate them, Zeigler converted two family rooms into dormitories.

The Gate House also is full, serving 21 people, including a 2-week-old whose parents have been at the shelter for seven months.

“I get 14 calls a week for placement,” said Dougher, who frequently refers people to shelters in other counties like Lycoming and in Harrisburg.

It highlights the need for more local shelters, like the By Grace Transitional Home for homeless young women and their families that is expected to open this spring in Middleburg.

Zeigler has no doubt the beds will fill quickly.

“A man moved out of here yesterday (Tuesday), and we got a call this morning from another man,” she said. “As soon as one person leaves, another steps in.”

Email comments to and follow her on Twitter at marciamoore4.

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