HONESDALE, PA — Caitlin Burkhead and her sister Meg Farr make their way to Farr’s car on a soggy, cold January night. “What’s even in Beach Lake?” Farr asks her sister, …
HONESDALE, PA — Caitlin Burkhead and her sister Meg Farr make their way to Farr’s car on a soggy, cold January night.
“What’s even in Beach Lake?” Farr asks her sister, who’s sorting through a folder of maps and information, once they’re inside the car. Burkhead shrugs: The Carousel amusement park, the gas station, the firehouse, the now-shuttered Kuester’s bar—not too much else. It doesn’t seem likely that the two will find any homeless people among the small strip of businesses along Route 652, especially in the snow and ice.
Other Wayne County volunteers for the Point-in-time Count (PIT Count)—required of all communities that receive funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)—have fanned out in Honesdale Borough, north into Starrucca and along Route 6 toward Scranton. The count is a yearly census conducted in Continuum of Care (CoC) units across the country to track homeless people on a single night in January—both the unsheltered and sheltered—people who are staying in housing provided by the Catholic Charities, for instance. The Eastern Pennsylvania CoC includes 33 primarily rural counties, and is split into five different Regional Homeless Advisory Boards, including the Pocono board, which encompasses Wayne County.
Farr and Burkhead have never volunteered before, but Burkhead found a call for volunteers online and decided to sign up. All of the volunteers—roughly 35—gathered at the Wayne County Area Agency on Aging for a rundown of the program and the process from Helen Kelly of Wayne County Human Services. Kelly and her team are aware of most people experiencing homelessness in the county, but the PIT count, she said, provides an opportunity to find more people who need services.
In 2018, the Wayne County PIT Count recorded seven people living in emergency housing, five who were unsheltered and one person considered chronically homeless. The entire Pocono region’s numbers—which also include Carbon, Monroe and Pike counties—recorded 118 unsheltered homeless people in the region, 118 people in emergency and transitional housing and three chronically homeless people. People without stable housing sometimes migrate between the counties.
A note in their files informs Burkhead and Farr of a woman potentially sleeping in her car somewhere in Beach Lake, perhaps in The Carousel or fire station parking lots. So, the sisters bring along a care package to drop off in the area in case she needs it.
If volunteers encounter someone potentially experiencing homelessness, they were instructed to approach, describe their mission—to connect the person with resources, if possible—and write down their location. An instructional video on the PIT Count informed volunteers of the procedure to maintain safety and ensure the privacy of anyone surveyed.
Farr drives out on Route 652 and pulls in at the gas station, where a woman is sitting at a table in the attached beer store. Inside, they ask the woman if she is aware of anyone sleeping in her car in the area, but leave with no answers. Outside, Burkhead holds onto Farr’s elbow, securing her 36-week pregnant sister as they pad across the icy driveway.
Previous PIT Counts have shown that homelessness across the country has increased over the last couple of years. That increase, according to HUD, is a result of fewer people staying in sheltered locations, such as emergency shelters and transitional housing programs, and more people living in unsheltered areas. Between 2017 and 2018, the number of unsheltered homeless people nationwide increased by two percent.
Largely rural areas had the highest rate of unsheltered homelessness nationwide. However, in the past two years, Wayne County has secured nearly half a million dollars in HUD funding to fight homelessness in the area. The county’s human services are now able to offer more emergency-use apartments—the waiting list for Section 8 subsidized housing can be at least a year—transitional housing, rapid rehousing, family unification programming and behavioral health-specific units.
According to the county, 217 people experiencing homelessness have been assisted through the use of those funds. From 2016 to 2018, the number of homeless people recorded during the PIT Count—both in the region and in Wayne County specifically—has declined.
“It was the first time we had heard, like ‘No, we haven’t seen anyone in a while,’” Kelly said about responses volunteers were getting this year from employees in stores and passerby. “And that’s good. We want to hear that.”
Burkhead and Farr spend another hour asking store owners—at the Dollar General, the White Owl bar, the fire station—and find no sign that anyone in the area has seen anyone in need. One person mentions that he’s seen people pulling in behind the church to do what he thinks are drug deals. “Be careful,” he warns.
When they get back in the car, Farr turns to her sister. “Does it bother you when people say stuff like that?” Burkhead is a recovering addict, nearly 10 months clean. She and her fiancé, also a recovering addict, lost several homes because they didn’t pay rent.
“At one point I had no heat, no electric, just living [in a trailer] with two kids,” she says, as she walks along the side of the road outside of the old Kuester’s Bar. “That was the time where I basically almost became homeless, but I went to detox instead.”
The opioid epidemic, which is notably bad in Pennsylvania, is intermingled with a number of issues, homelessness included. One in three homeless people, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association, also have substance abuse issues.
“I was terrified for my sister,” Farr says, in the car outside the gas station. “I definitely thought she was going to die. And it doesn’t end, because every day you wonder, are they going to relapse?”
“I was terrified for my sister. I definitely thought she was going to die."
A group of volunteers covering the Honesdale area hear of a potentially homeless man who goes into the Super Duper. They leave a care package there, as well as scour the railroad tracks, shining their flashlights under train cars and down into snowy embankments.
The apparently declining number of people experiencing homelessness in the county is a result of more attention and know-how from county officials and those working on the issue. Volunteers identified five people who were unsheltered in Wayne County during the count. Three wanted to remain in their situations, Kelly said, and are usually counted each year. The other two were already enrolled in a county program and were housed February 5.
In shelters, there were 16 to 18 people split between a homeless shelter, a domestic violencre shelter, a general-use emergency apartment and two to four transitional housing units. Kelly is not certain if the transition-age youth apartments will count toward the total.
“We’re getting better at serving people, we’re getting better at finding them and finding the right fit for them,” Kelly said. Last year, volunteers found a veteran living in his car in the McDonald’s parking lot. “A veterans’ agency was able to swoop right the next day and assist,” she said. “We had no idea that guy was there. He was hiding in plain sight for who knows how long.”
Burkhead now lives in an apartment with her fiancé and children, and, according to her sister, works hard to stay sober. “I’m so happy that someone came to me and offered me help,” Burkhead says, referring to her sister and the county’s Children and Youth Services. ‘That’s kind of what made me want to do [the PIT Count].”
At the end of the night, after they’ve dropped off their unused care package and homemade sleeping bag, the sisters get back in the car—all of Farr’s baby items piled in the back seat—and head home.
Editor's note: The numbers for the 2019 PIT Count were added to this story online when they became available, which was after the story ran in print.