W‚??ILKES-BARRE ‚?? Kurt Swan, a 45-year-old homeless man, said he and as many as 100 people have lived in recent months along the Susquehanna River in West Side riverfront parks.
Remnants of tents litter the ground, along with weather-beaten Bibles, discarded liquor bottles and clothing ruined by rain.
‚??I went through a drinking spell,‚?Ě said Swan. ‚??But not so much now.‚?Ě
The unprecedented number of tents, homeless advocates said, is evidence that Luzerne County‚??s homeless problem has worsened in recent months. There are more homeless people in the area today than ever before, and the tent dwellers are ‚??chronically homeless,‚?Ě said Monsignor Joseph Kelly, executive director of Catholic Social Services.
Many of them frequent St. Vincent de Paul Kitchen for free meals and seek warmth when possible in public libraries and coffee shops. Kelly and others involved with helping the homeless, including those on the streets and in shelters, estimated the population at between 40 and 100.
It‚??s difficult to accurately account for tent dwellers and those living in abandoned buildings or ‚??couch surfers‚?Ě ‚?? people who go from friend to friend to crash for a night or two.
Jim Sobieski, who volunteers at the St. Vincent de Paul Kitchen on Jackson Street, said there are ‚??at least‚?Ě three dozen homeless people living outdoors in tents or carved-out, mountainside caves in or near Wilkes-Barre.
The state‚??s decision to end its cash assistance program on Aug. 1 caused homelessness to spike, Kelly said. The program offered $205 per month to ‚??the poorest of poor,‚?Ě he said. ‚??They would use that money to rent a room. We immediately saw an uptick in homelessness when the cash assistance program stopped.‚?Ě
Kelly said there are other reasons for more homelessness. Employment is less available, especially one-day jobs that many homeless people would take. And there are fewer vacant part-time jobs, said Kelly, further reducing the ability of homeless people to earn some income.
With outdoor temperatures turning colder, Swan said many homeless seek shelter in ‚??abandonminiums‚?Ě ‚?? vacant structures that offer some protection from the elements. If caught inside, violators could be jailed ‚?? sometimes a welcome option, he said.
Living in the woods, especially in the colder months, has its challenges, Swan said.
He starts a fire in the morning to warm up and sometimes has a nip of alcohol to ‚??get the chill out.‚?Ě He heads to downtown Wilkes-Barre daily, goes to church often and grabs a meal at the kitchen on Jackson Street.
When it rains, Swan and two companions head for any shelter they can find. If none can be found, he said, ‚??I‚??m going to get wet.‚?Ě
Lynn Bell, who also is homeless, is a 53-year-old woman who said she has battled cancer. She and her boyfriend, Dave, who would not provide his last name, live in a tent in the woods of Wilkes-Barre Township.
She said Dave is constantly looking for a job, but ‚??there‚??s nothing out there.‚?Ě
Catholic Social Services operates Mother Teresa‚??s Haven, a structured program for the homeless willing to not drink alcohol, where they work to improve themselves in return for nightly shelter in churches. The program moves weekly from church to church, and Kelly is hopeful a permanent shelter soon will be established in the downtown.
Mother Teresa‚??s Haven, formerly called VISION, moves 22 to 25 homeless men through the system. They get assistance in finding work, services and essentials such as food, clothing and a shower.
These homeless men, said Kelly, still have hope of finding a job and housing and resuming a productive role in society.
Kelly said the number of people in the program has been stable for the last year or so. Many participants navigate the system well, he said, and eventually find jobs and more permanent housing.
Rick Rutter, at Keystone Rescue Mission Alliance off Coal Street in Wilkes-Barre, provides a place for homeless men to shower if they walk in off the street. Homeless men also can establish a mailing address there.
Those who live by the Susquehanna don‚??t want to follow the rules, Kelly said.
‚??They‚??ve decided they would be better off living in a tent by the river rather than in a shelter,‚?Ě said Kelly. ‚??Most have given up hope. They have no hope of ever finding a job or of ever finding affordable housing.‚?Ě
Many of these chronically homeless people like to drink ‚?? a behavior that excludes them from participating in most structured homeless programs geared at finding jobs and housing while providing meals and respite, Kelly said.
What can be done for these homeless?
‚??I guess improve the economy,‚?Ě said Kelly. ‚??The only way to get them into temporary housing is one client at a time.‚?Ě
Stefanie Wolownik, program supervisor at Manna House ‚?? a transitional housing program for homeless 18- to 25-year-olds ‚?? had worked as director of REACH, a homeless drop-in center in the basement of St. Stephen‚??s Episcopal Church on South Franklin Street. REACH closed a year and a half ago largely due to funding cutbacks.
Wolownik still has a connection with the homeless community. She helped to organize a memorial service on Friday for homeless people who have died while staying in this area.
Wolownik said many homeless people have mental disorders and/or substance abuse issues that make it difficult, if not impossible, for them to negotiate the system of applying for help and services.
‚??They can‚??t chronicle their lives ‚?? something that is necessary when filling out application forms,‚?Ě said Wolownik. ‚??They can‚??t remember dates; it‚??s a difficult process.‚?Ě
Wolownik and Kelly said there are housing assistance programs, rental assistance programs and job search programs to help people be productive again.
‚??Some programs will buy steel-toed shoes or tools needed for certain jobs,‚?Ě said Wolownik. ‚??But the applicant has to be astute enough to identify where to go and then complete the application process.‚?Ě
A permanent shelter would make the process easier, said Wolownik, because everything would be centralized and within walking distance to the places a homeless/jobless person needs to get in order to improve his or her situation. ‚??And it‚??s important to know where you‚??re going to lay your head every night,‚?Ě she said.
She said some homeless individuals get arrested repeatedly for public drunkenness, which leads to jail time. ‚??Then they are warm for the winter,‚?Ě she said. ‚??It‚??s survival of the fittest; well they aren‚??t very fit, but they manage to survive.‚?Ě
According to a city ordinance, homeless camps erected in Kirby Park‚??s Nature Area are illegal, but Police Chief Gerard Dessoye said the ordinance is not strictly enforced, if at all.
The former director of VISION ‚?? now Mother Teresa‚??s Haven ‚?? Vince Kabacinski said despite severe cutbacks in funding, opportunities remain for the homeless.