In contrast, most homeless don't even vote. But council surprised me last Thursday, looking better than it has in a long time. It unanimously adopted a resolution to help fund emergency shelter grants. Grants administrator Lori G. Sywensky spoke of a "staggering" homeless problem in the Lehigh Valley. She characterized the county's contribution as a "drop in the bucket." Even Ron Angle, the county's fiscal watchdog, had no problem with this resolution. "We're supposed to be in the human services business."
On Friday, Sywensky emailed me reports from LVPC and Penn State Data Center with the most recent census on homelessness in the Lehigh Valley. Here's part of her email:
"[E]ach of the shelters in Northampton have seen an increase in the number of families using the shelter between 2002 and 2004, ranging from an increase of 4.8% to 19%. The average length of stay in a shelter was 36 nights per person.
Two things I found particularly disturbing in the report was that 79 women were pregnant during their shelter stay, with 7 women giving birth. Relatedly, the largest reason that families cited for needing shelter (21%) was the unavailability of childcare. Given that most adults residing in shelters (68.1%) had diplomas and some post-secondary education, the shelter programs certainly have a very large job to do in order to help people find stable living arrangements."
So how many people really are homeless in the Lehigh Valley? Hard to say. Some live in their cars or under bridges. Others double up with family and friends. But in 2004, there were about 2500 taken in by the area's nine shelters. Nine hundred were kids.
Around this time two years ago, Allentown was bulldozing self-made shelters in the woods around an old abandoned garbage plant, trying to exterminate its riff raff. I like this approach to a little better.