(EDITOR'S NOTE: Faith Matters is a column written by the social concerns committee of the United Churches of Lycoming County. The monthly feature will include local faith-based comment on significant social issues facing us today. Letters reacting to the columns should be brief and clear and may be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed in the columns are those of the writers and the social concerns committee, not necessarily the Sun-Gazette.)
By DAN DOYLE
People who currently are experiencing homelessness in Lycoming County face many imposing challenges. Any cutbacks to the "social safety net" will compound those challenges and likely increase the numbers of those who are homeless. As of October there were 99 people living in faith-based homeless shelters in the county. Of these, 37 were children. The total number of people who are homeless is unknown, although surveys taken annually the past several years indicate that Lycoming County has one of the highest rates of homelessness per capita in Pennsylvania. People who are homeless are found throughout the county.
"Homeless" is a word that has no specific face. A stereotyped image likely comes to mind from pictures taken in some major city in the United States. I have had the privilege of being an occasional volunteer with Family Promise - an ecumenical program that provides temporary shelter to families on a weekly rotating basis at 13 churches in the county. (There are five other shelters locally, all faith based.) I have learned to see faces. I now have in my mind numerous parents and children that I have come to know.
I have met, over the past two years, families who find themselves without a home owing to a wide range of reasons. Significant health conditions, loss of work, flood, fire and relationships ending are some of the contributing or compounding factors. In contrast to the stereotype, many of the parents are working. However employment, both locally and nationally, often is part-time with low wages. The work situation is not sufficient to afford a place to live especially as rents have risen recently.
The parents I have met are striving against almost insurmountable odds to find a place to live, locate new or better paying work and keep their children in school. Finding day care for children that is affordable and matches work schedules is a particularly challenging obstacle. Many parents that I have met have worked hard to maintain some level of normalcy in the lives of their children by taking them to after-school and church activities. Health needs of parents or children have at various times resulted in crisis situations. Yet through all these factors the parents have persevered, striving to reestablish normalcy in their families' lives.
What needs to be done? From a faith perspective charity is needed. Support for programs that support those encountering homelessness. Support for food pantries and supplemented child care is essential. Faith also calls us to seek justice. We need to advocate for working situations that provide a living wage. We need to tell federal and state elected officials that programs providing assistance with affordable housing, proper nutrition and other essential parts of the social safety net should not be cut during the deliberations over budgets and deficits. If we all were to know personally persons experiencing homelessness at this time, discussion and deliberation regarding policies would have a face rather than being some abstract and stereotypical word such as "homeless." Let us make sure that no longer will they say "there was no room for them in the inn" (Luke 2:7).
- Doyle is a member of Resurrection Catholic Church in Muncy and the United Churches Christian Social Concerns Committee.