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Chester County Press

Agencies call on legislators to push for affordable, accessible housing in county

08/30/2022 03:06PM ● By Richard Gaw

Photo by Richard L. Gaw         U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan was one of several speakers who addressed the issue of homelessness in Chester County at “Voices of Lived Experience,” held on Aug. 24 at the West Chester University Graduate Center.

Against the backdrop of increasing homelessness in Chester County, a recent seminar was marked by testimony from area residents, whose fight to be heard is being swallowed up by a lack of action

By Richard L. Gaw

Staff Writer

You are the reason I’ve been waiting so long
Somebody holds the key
Well, I’m near the end
And just ain’
t got the time
And I'm wasted and I can’t find my way home

              “Can’t Find My Way Home” by Steve Winwood


Last week, at a consortium on homelessness in Chester County, a 22-minute video began to roll before elected and appointed officials and representatives from several county agencies. One by one, the stories of nearly two dozen county residents were amplified and humanized to the strains of Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home”:

Despite working steadily since 1976, a 62-year-old Phoenixville man has been homeless for more than a year and living in shelters. “Everybody is a human being and we shouldn’t overlook anybody,” he said.

A Coatesville woman has consistently been denied housing. She said that she is now living on the streets, with nowhere to go. 

A Coatesville couple has been turned down by several assistance programs and has been homeless for the past two-and-a-half years. “We have been met with dead ends all the way around,” the mother said. “The threat of homelessness for families who have been homeless before is a very real fear, and having to move again, you’re met with the fears of not being close to your job, transportation and uprooting your children to different schools. There are a lot of unanswered questions of, ‘Where are we going now?’

An Oxford woman said that she has been “couch surfing” with friends for the past two years.

A 27-year-old woman said she has been living in government-assisted housing since she was nine years old. When she was 22, she was accepted at West Chester University, and now owns a master’s degree and is working toward her doctorate. She is still struggling. “We call the 2-1-1 number and ask for vouchers, and we get turned away, even if we wait in line,” she said. “I would like elected officials to know that I am a human being, and this process has been very, very draining on my mental health. There is only so much a person can take, and for 27 years of my life, I have been fighting and I have not stopped fighting.”

The invisible citizens of Chester County

Tucked a short commute from Center City Philadelphia, less than an hours’ drive from the tawny neighborhoods of the Main Line and bordered by the endless landscape of Lancaster County’s farms and meadows, Chester County is on a stunning and meteoric rise.

It is Pennsylvania’s wealthiest county, reflected in economic data provided on the Chester County Planning Commission website, that reports the median income of the county’s 192,000 households stands at $104,000, and 20 percent of those households enjoy a median income of more than $200,000. Perhaps most fitting to the narrative of this news article, the median cost of a home in Chester County stood at $492,000, an increase of 13 percent over the previous year.

Most telling, it is projected to be the fastest growing county in southeastern Pennsylvania, with growth of more than 25 percent anticipated by 2050. With a population nearing 550,000, the county is expected to draw 146,000 new residents over the next 30 years, who will add to an already diverse business community and tack their names, titles and talents to a rosy economic future.

The county is home to high tech, finance, pharmaceutical, information, health care, management, real estate and agricultural industries and despite a few hiccups from impact of COVID-19, the long-range forecast is a very positive one. These, and many others like it, are the stories Chester County economists, real estate agents, elected officials and those whose job it is to promote the county love to tell.

There is another story happening in Chester County, however, that does not elicit such grand accolades. Hard against all of this great news is a conversation far removed from the corporate parks and McMansion neighborhoods that continue to proliferate from Phoenixville to Oxford and everywhere in between.

The story is about them – the invisible citizens of Chester County, the marginalized, the working poor and those driven to homelessness who fall asleep and wake up along the roughened patches of our outer towns, boroughs and townships. Already burdened and exhausted by their circumstance, their lives are made worse by not having the resources – and often, the adequate assistance – to provide for their own shelter.

The facts – and the truths -- are these:

·    Phone calls to the 2-1-1 hotline for shelter and housing services in Chester County have risen over 600 percent from 2020 to 2021 and continue to rise in 2022

·    The average monthly cost of rent plus utilities in Chester County is $1,354, and more than 44 percent of renter households spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent

·      Twenty-five percent of county residents are renters, and it takes an hourly wage of $24.96 to afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market rent in Chester County

·       Every day, one person is evicted from their home in Chester County

·        In a Point in Time snapshot taken on January 26, 2022, the Chester County Department of Community Development said that 402 people reported that they were homeless in Chester County. Of those, 25 percent were children under the age of 18

·        Kennett Area Community Service (KACS) reports a 30 percent increase in service calls from families and individuals seeking shelter due, in part, to the continuing effects of COVID-19, an economic downturn and soaring inflation

‘These are our mothers, our fathers, our sisters and our brothers’

On Aug. 24, the Chester County Partnership to End Homelessness convened a seminar at the West Chester University Graduate Center entitled “Voices of Lived Experience,” that gathered some of the county’s top elected and appointed officials and representatives from the county’s leading agencies on the front lines of the war on homelessness. 

The legislative gathering followed a series of six focus group sessions hosted by local nonprofits that included Home of the Sparrow, Orion Communities, Act in Faith of Greater West Chester, Kennett Area Community Service (KACS), Community Youth and Women’s Alliance, Oxford Area Neighborhood Services, Habitat for Humanity of Chester County, Oxford Silo, Black Women of Chester County in Action, and the Chester County Partnership to End Homelessness in partnership with The Housing Alliance of PA.

During the course of these focus groups, 61 individuals shared their personal stories – 22 of which are captured on the video.

“This experience gave us an opportunity to step back and hear the whole story in order to recognize them as humans who are experiencing a housing crisis that not only affects them, it impacts on their families, their employer, their school and every aspect of the community,” said Cheryl Miles, the chairperson of Black Women of Chester County in Action. “It’s not about the individual. It’s about improving the community so that all have access to safe and affordable housing.

“These are our mothers, our fathers, our sisters and our brothers,” Miles added. “They are your co-workers, they are your retail employees you engage in at stores, and they may even be the persons who care for you in a doctor’s office or a hospital.”

In his welcoming remarks, Chester County Commissioner Josh Maxwell said that the county’s population is rising at the same volume as the growing disparity in incomes, which has led to a definitive gap between those who can afford housing and those who are forced to scramble in an effort to find a place to live. It’s a county-wide dilemma, he said.

From agricultural workers in the southern part of the county to people in the northern part of the county who are commuting to Philadelphia or attending college, the issue will involve a lot of people working together in the government and the non-profit world,” he said. “This is a problem that we can solve by working together, but it will involve a lot of cooperation throughout the county.”

The problem of homelessness in Chester County, however, as it was unwrapped during the seminar, has reached the upper levels of a crisis. Orion Communities Program Coordinator Wendy Gaynor provided an overview of what those who attended the focus groups face on a daily basis in their attempt to find affordable housing.

“We heard that there are not enough protections for renters,” she said. “We heard that rents are rising without warning, and that landlords are not accepting emergency rental assistance money as often. There is a lack of social safety nets. One person said that she was 60 years old when she began to look for senior housing and just moved in on her 67th birthday.”

Gaynor said that those participating in the focus groups called for the modernization of Pennsylvania’s landlord and tenant act; more coordination of county-wide resources; and basing eligibility for housing on an individual’s income rather than household income.

‘Call to Action’

Representatives from six county agencies delivered a “Call to Action” to elected officials that address revising zoning laws, increasing housing affordability, boosting income protections, providing support for diversion tract households and encouraging landlords to follow fair housing guidelines.

Matrie Johnson, director of programs at Home of the Sparrow, said that the county is “desperately” in need of providing housing for low-wage earners  and low-income individuals and families – not just subsidized housing, but housing for the entire community.

“We need to take care of everyone,” she said. “They deserve that. Let’s look at some long-term, permanent housing solutions, such as vacant houses, tiny houses, mixed-use houses. We can do this.”

A key step to addressing the issue of housing affordability will be to receive cooperation from landlords, said Dale Gravett, executive director of the Housing Authority for Chester County.

“We have everything in place right now to provide major assistance to folks needing affordable housing,” he said. “Not only can we pay security deposits, we can pay a bonus to the landlords, which has worked out very well for landlords who are willing to do it. We can also pay past utility bills.

“We can do all of these things now. We just need the landlords to say, Yes.’”

Leandria Hall, program director for special programs at Oxford Area Neighborhood Services, noted the differences in the definition of homelessness from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. Hall said that the HUD definition provides several restrictions that prevent families and individuals from receiving HUD-funded homeless assistance programs.

HUD’s new definition includes four broad categories of homelessness: Those who are living in a place not meant for human habitation, in emergency shelter, in transitional housing, or are exiting an institution where they temporarily resided; those who are losing their primary nighttime residence, which may include a motel or hotel or a doubled up situation, within 14 days and lack resources or support networks to remain in housing; families with children or unaccompanied youth who are unstably housed and likely to continue in that state; and those who are fleeing or attempting to flee domestic violence, have no other residence, and lack the resources or support networks to obtain other permanent housing.

“In contrast, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act defines being homeless as individuals who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence,” she said. “These include young people living in motels and hotels, trailer parks, campgrounds and those couch surfing.

The latter to me would be the more humane definition. We should address those most at risk, but it is also clear that we as a community need to be more proactive to get care or resources to those that have been diverted from the street, particularly when that diversion has been short lived.”

KACS Program Director Amy Scheuren said that the barriers to assistance can be removed by developing diversion services, she said.

“Many households have lost their housing and struggle to access assistance through 2-1-1,” she said. “Many of these families and individuals are living with friends, families and even co-workers. Diversion is a strategy that prevents HUD-definition homelessness for people seeking shelter by helping them identify alternate housing arrangements and connecting them with services and financial assistance.

“In the short term, Chester County can increase support, funding and case management for diversion services. This funding and support should be flexible in nature due to the various difficult situations that residents find themselves in.”

Mayor Peter Urscheler of Phoenixville said that tackling homelessness in Chester County will be an act of “doing something bigger than ourselves.”

“If you just take each of these calls to actions and start there as your checklist, you will already be miles ahead of where we have ever been,” he said. “We need to take big steps to get big results. We have to work together, and start taking proactive steps to get there.

“We can be a source of hope, and that is a hope that every person in our communities finds a place to be safe, be loved and most of all, be celebrated.”

‘Fairness and equity’

“While access to quality and affordable housing is an issue across the county, it is particularly acute here in the sixth Congressional District, especially in Chester County,” said U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan. “The pathway to affordable housing begins with fairness and equity for all. The issue of equity and equality in not just an issue of the individual, it is in fact an economic issue for all of us, a health issue for all of us, and a human rights issue for all of us in the community.”

As the aspirations and vision expressed at the seminar await the possibility of changes in legislation, Chester County continues to make advancements to address homelessness. The county recently committed to finding housing for 150 households and adding 350 affordable housing units through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness’ House America Initiative. In addition, the Chester County Partnership to End Homelessness has established a collaborative with local partners to develop 100 affordable housing units annually over the next ten years.

Being able to gather a large number of elected officials and stakeholders together in one room may not be the ultimate solution to solving homelessness in Chester County, Gaynor said, but it is a start.

“We have a room that is packed with representatives who came to hear stories,” Gaynor said. “They have come from all corners of the county to listen to a 22-minute video telling 22 different stories. I see a lot of humanity here and I hear people honoring other people.

I believe that they are ready to listen to the calls for action and do something about it.”

“We as organizations have to be unapologetic for the people we serve,” Miles added. “We have to be bold enough to be able to take a stand on their behalf, and hold others accountable for it. We have to model that behavior so that the people we serve understand that they too have a voice, and have the power within them to be heard.”

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].

“Homelessness in Chester County – Part 2 in a series” will appear in an upcoming edition of the Chester County Press.