Preventing homelessness before it begins

Pandemic raises awareness, funding

By OWEN WALSH
Posted 3/8/22

HONESDALE, PA — Once a year, Wayne County takes a snapshot to capture the status of homelessness and housing insecurity throughout the area. It’s a yearly statewide tradition for housing …

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Preventing homelessness before it begins

Pandemic raises awareness, funding

Posted

HONESDALE, PA — Once a year, Wayne County takes a snapshot to capture the status of homelessness and housing insecurity throughout the area. It’s a yearly statewide tradition for housing departments across all 67 counties, and is known as the point-in-time (PIT) count. Housing director Heather Miszler said the figures collected during these counts are essential for securing future funding and raising awareness about homelessness in Wayne County.

The PIT count relies on volunteers who comb through designated sections of the county, looking for people who are experiencing homelessness or seem to be facing a housing crisis. This year, Miszler said, they did not count anybody who was considered “homeless” by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s definition.

They did find, however, a handful of leads on residents who were likely facing housing crises.

“One person needs help with their utilities that they’re behind on, and their home would become inhabitable if they didn’t have electric and running water, so we want to prevent that,” she said. “Someone else was living in their car in Hawley, another [person] by the lake, so it’s kind of a mixture.”

Miszler said despite the fact that they counted no people experiencing homelessness by definition, that doesn’t mean that everybody is securely sheltered. Instead, it’s a positive sign that the housing department’s focus on homelessness prevention in recent years has been effective. In addition, she said that since the rise of COVID-19, the department has received more funding to assist people with rent and mortgage payments.

“We do have six households at the local hotel right now, so we do shelter some households that have completely nothing,” she said. “I definitely think we’ve grown a lot, because we only offered rental assistance a few years ago, and now it’s just expanded so much more. And the caseloads have expanded.”

As the name suggests, the county’s homelessness-prevention programs allow Miszler and her team to assist residents before they become homeless—for example, if they are getting kicked out of their current household, if they are behind on rent payments and facing eviction, or behind on utilities and facing shut-offs.

“We also have emergency-shelter funding to help households that are about to be homeless, or are homeless, and need a shelter in Wayne County,” she said. “Wayne County doesn’t have shelters, so we typically have to send households to Monroe County for the shelter, but if they have ties to this area we keep them [here].”

She said the department’s most utilized service is the Emergency Rental Assistance Program [ERAP] which arose during the COVID-19 pandemic. Miszler said that there have been more than 500 applications for this assistance, and the county has provided roughly one million dollars helping residents pay rent.

In general, a silver lining throughout the pandemic has been an increased focus on housing insecurity, Miszler said.

“Funders at the state and federal levels are finally seeing that homeless-prevention is something to invest in, where they didn’t see that before,” she said. “I think the pandemic and the [eviction] moratorium have brought that to light, and I really hope this funding stays even after the pandemic.”

Miszler encouraged anyone in the county to apply for assistance through the department’s website at https://www.waynecountypa.gov/821/Housing-Department. People with questions can also call 570/253-6758, ext. 3200, or email housing@waynecountypa.gov. She also said that anyone facing a more imminent housing crisis should dial 211.

“I think the biggest thing that people don’t realize is that they probably have had some kind of hardship that would allow them to qualify for [rental, utility, or mortgage] funding,” Miszler said. “I’m sure everyone in this entire planet has experienced hardships over the past two years. Even just buying protective equipment, like masks and sanitizer—that’s a hardship—that’s incurred costs; children [learning from] home and the incurred costs in food and electric from that; or if you have had to work remote, everyone has been inconvenienced in some capacity.”

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