Empty shelves: KACS continues fight to deliver shelter, food to the homeless09/06/2022 02:57PM ● By Richard Gaw
Photo by Richard L. Gaw Kennett Area Community Service (KACS) Executive Director Leah Reynolds, front, stands with some of the KACS staff and volunteers.
By Richard L. Gaw
It is as dramatic as it is barren, and it tells the absolute story of a local crisis without uttering a single word.
Up and down the shelves in the storage and shopping areas of the Kennett Food Cupboard at Kennett Area Community Services on West Cedar Street, the metallic steel rows are normally filled with the essential items needed by the families who use the agency’s services. Baby wipes. Diapers. Jelly. Fresh vegetables. Rice and beans. In the years before COVID-19, an average of 550 families used the Food Cupboard every month, and 90 percent of the food was donated.
Most of that inventory has been depleted. Food donations to the agency have dwindled dramatically over the past several months, and in July alone, KACS distributed a total of 59,259 pounds of food from its Food Cupboard. At the same time, community donations during the month amounted to just 8,547 pounds of food.
The empty shelves, however, are merely a touch point to a surging reality that has held county-based agencies like KACS in a vice grip the past two years. In the richest county in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, homelessness and its many tendrils – affordable housing, food distribution, shelter, case services and the doorways of education and opportunity – are no longer able to withstand the weight of a county whose underserved are being ripped from the lifelines that have traditionally sustained them.
In truth, KACS’ entire mission – to help vulnerable individuals and families achieve sustainable living solutions through emergency assistance and case management – has been forced into compromise over the last several months. Against the increasing weight of a runaway crisis, what was once considered unthinkable is now cold-hearted fact: As of Aug. 1, the case management team at KACS was so overloaded with cases that those now seeking emergency and housing assistance are being referred to The United Way of Pennsylvania’s 2-1-1 hotline for help with services like food, housing and shelter, employment, clothing and other resources. As of Aug. 1, KACS had 90 individual emergency assistance cases and had spent $115,000 to house individuals and families at four local hotels during July alone.
Meanwhile, the requests for assistance continued to pour in to an agency whose offices continue to be a hodgepodge of new configuration after a fire and flood in August 2020 and then again in April 2022 forced KACS to house case managers in trailers.
“We have been overwhelmed with cases,” said Executive Director Leah Reynolds. “Normally, we walk with them through the entire process, but we are tapped out. I am recruiting for another case manager that we didn’t have in the budget. Just last week, a local resident called me and said, ‘Leah, there is a homeless person at the Wawa.’ I responded, ‘I am not surprised.’ “You’re going to see more of that until we fix the problem.
“Human beings are not made to live outside.”
In the past few weeks alone, KACS has placed three homeless households in hotels:
· One household is an immigrant couple who recently arrived in the U.S. While KACS has been able to find them a hotel for two to three weeks before a room is available for them elsewhere, but because the couple have not lived in the county long, they are not yet eligible to receive shelter or housing assistance from the county.
· One household is a single woman who became homeless in May of 2021. She had been forced to live in her car and then later forced to sell it, because it was her only asset, despite the fact that she works at a full-time job.
· The third household is made up of a single mother with two children who has spent the last two years couch surfing and living in her car after she lost her housing. She sought temporary shelter at her mother’s residence, but her mother has begun to receive multiple lease violations for having her daughter and grandchildren living with her. As a consequence, she is facing possible eviction and homelessness, and was forced to have her daughter and grandchildren leave.
‘The perfect storm’
The new reality at KACS is a mere reflection of an ever-widening disparity between the enfranchised and the disenfranchised of Chester County – those who can afford to roll with the punches of an up-and-down economy and a worldwide pandemic, and those who are drowning in it. Either way, the statistics do not lie: 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. Every day, an average of one person is evicted from their home in Chester County. In a Point in Time snapshot taken on Jan. 26, the Chester County Department of Community Development said that 402 people reported that they were homeless in Chester County – a number that has widely been speculated to have increased in recent months.
Reynolds called it “the perfect storm.”
“This is about the impact of COVID-19, and inflation, and the lack of affordable housing, and the lack of living wages for the underserved in the county, and the cost of living and utilities that cannot be met through Social Security,” she said. “As an illustration of this, I met a couple recently who cannot afford the cost of utilities in their home, so they don’t use their electricity or water in order to stay within their monthly budget.”
Perhaps the hardest hit by the rising rate of homelessness in Chester County has been the mushroom industry, whose work force makes up more than one-quarter of KACS’ case load management.
“The new arrivals in the local mushroom houses are no longer just men, but unaccompanied minors and women,” Reynolds said. “We’re seeing waves of Columbians and Venezuelans who over the last five months have been making their way to KACS. We purchased over $2,000 worth of air beds for them and have been able to get people food, but we cannot find everyone shelter. To make matters even more complicated, they have not lived in the county long enough to qualify for any county assistance.”
‘Creative ways to leverage people into finding solutions’
If there is a silver lining in the thunderclouds of a county-wide storm, it is now being found in the unity of collective voices walking the long walk toward being heard. 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.” To many who attended, the event served as the first and vital conversation between those on the front lines of the war on homelessness and some of the county’s top elected officials, who included Rep. John Lawrence, Rep. Dan Williams (74th Legislative District), Sen. Katie Muth (44th Senatorial District), Chester County Commissioner Josh Maxwell, Mayor Peter Urscheler of Phoenixville, West Chester Mayor Lillian DeBaptiste and U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan.
KACS Program Director Amy Scheuren was joined by representatives from Home of the Sparrow, Orion Communities, Act in Faith of Greater West Chester, 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.
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. The consortium was highlighted by a 22-minute video, in which county residents shared their various struggles with homelessness, which have been exacerbated not just by the loss of income and unfair wages, but by the refusal to enact certain zoning laws that would hold landlords more accountable.
The seminar served as a valuable and crucial step toward solutions, Reynolds said.
“All of the initiatives expressed during the seminar have elevated conversations with state and county officials and with borough and local townships over what’s been happening over the last several months,” she said. “I believe that when people hear, read and see the stories of real people, they will be moved to do the right thing. Sometimes, it’s about helping people to see themselves or their children or grandchildren in the faces of these people, in order to understand that all humans need shelter and all humans need to eat.
“There are a lot of creative ways to leverage people into finding solutions.”
Good energy working toward a common solution
While the immediacy of finding food and shelter for as many local residents as possible remains most urgent for KACS, the agency has committed itself to several initiatives that will position them well in future. It recently accepted the donation of property by the Pia family on Cypress Street that will eventually become KACS’ new headquarters, which is projected to begin construction in 2024. Once completed, the building will serve as a major food distribution hub for southern Chester County, in partnership with the Chester County Food Bank.
In addition to a warehouse, the facility will serve as a dedicated space for an on-site food store, administrative offices, and workspace for case managers, and become the new home of KACS’ Bridges Out of Poverty and Getting Ahead programs, which are currently being led by coordinator Kim Matos.
Other KACS initiatives include:
· This fall, KACS will become a community housing development organization (CHODO). “Being a CHODO organization will allow us to provide affordable housing, support some of our programs and create inventory, and become part of the solution,” Reynolds said.
· KACS is on the governance board for the Chester County Partnership to End Homelessness – a partnership that is now creating the Affordable Housing Development Collaborative to develop affordable housing for county residents who are at or below the 60 percent area median income. Its goal will be to create two or more 50-unit affordable housing developments every year for the next ten years – for a total of 1,000 or more units.
· On June 8, the Chester County Partnership to End Homelessness partnered with representatives from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Chester County Department of Community Development and the Chester County Commissioners to issue a proclamation declaring the county’s involvement in the House America Initiative – which commits the county to re-house members of 150 households and begin developing 350 additional units of affordable housing.
“There is a lot of good energy working toward a common solution,” Reynolds said. “The crisis of homelessness in Chester County will not be solved by one group or another. It is a solution where leaders have to come together as a collective, not just one part of government or one agency.
“A local official recently asked me, ‘Who should be responsible for bringing everyone together?’ I told him, ‘All of us. It’s everyone who lives and works here in Chester County. They’re responsible for the problem, and for the solution.’”
Reynolds told the story of a woman who began to use the services of KACS in 2016. She qualified for the Kennett Food Cupboard, completed a 16-week Getting Ahead workshop, and called Reynolds last December.
“She told me, ‘I want you to tell everybody there that because of the Getting Ahead program, I have a master’s degree in cyber security and analytics.’ Now, neither she nor her daughter will ever need a place like KACS again.
“We hope to grow our Bridges Out of Poverty workshops and our financial literacy programs and continue to do the work that will transform our most vulnerable neighbors from barely surviving to thriving.
“We’re excited about our future, about our new building and what can happen there, but right now we are experiencing the pain of what it means to get there.”
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].
The Kennett Food Cupboard at Kennett Area Community Service is in desperate need of the following food and essential items:
Jelly (strawberry and grape)
2 lb. bags of rice and/or dried beans (pinto, black)
Canned Tuna/Chicken/ Deviled Ham
Small-shaped pasta (elbow & bowtie)
Canned Vegetables (corn, mixed vegetables, tomatoes) (low sodium)
Nescafe (instant coffee)/ Coffee and Tea
Canned Tomato/ Tomato Sauce
Baby Wipes & Diapers (size 4, 5, 6, or training pants)
Feminine hygiene products (e.g. tampons, pads)
Paper products (e.g. toilet paper, paper towels)
Clean Gently Used Grocery Bags (plastic, paper, or reusable)
The Kennett Area Community Service Food Cupboard
is located at 136 West Cedar Street, Kennett Square, Pa. 19348. Hours are Tuesdays from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m., Wednesdays from 12 p.m. to 7
p.m. and Thursdays from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. For further assistance, call 610-925-3556, or visit www.kacsonline.net.