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Chester County Press

St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church seeking help for the homeless

06/05/2024 10:59AM ● By Betsy Brewer Brantner

If there can be a silver lining to the devastating fire in Oxford that left over 90 people homeless, it would be that it clearly illustrated the need for affordable housing. 

Pastor Mary Ann Mertz, from St. Christoper’s Episcopal Church, has studied this problem for many years, and she is focused on helping those in the community that are acutely aware of the need for affordable housing.

Homelessness is a problem all over the country, and finding a solution to this problem would benefit everyone, not just those who are homeless. It is not a stretch to say that homelessness affects health care, criminal justice, emergency systems and education.

Imagine what your life would be like with no home—pause and imagine having no place to come home to and rest after a day of work. In Oxford, on one tragic evening last September, a devastating fire made that a reality for 90 people in town.

For many in the Borough of Oxford, the threat of fire is still evident, even eight months later. There are more than gaping holes on South Third Street to show how quick a life can change. There is still a hole in the soul of the community.

“If it weren’t for the two police officers who went door to door that night waking up sleeping families, it would have been so much worse,” Mertz said. “Like everyone in the community, we wanted to help in any way possible. We saw first-hand the helpless looks on the faces of those that had lost everything.”

Trying to find homes for the displaced residents became an entirely different challenge. Those residents were not only out in the cold, they were facing the high cost of housing in today’s world. Housing was found, but the high cost of that is still being dealt with.

Sadly, it is not just the cost of rent that is daunting, but the process and requirements. Most landlords require a rental history of five years, a criminal background check, three months of rent, and a weekly pay the amount of the monthly rent. Sounds reasonable right? The average cost of rent in Chester County is about $1596 per month for a one bedroom home. Minimum wage in the state of Pennsylvania is $7.25 an hour. So if you do the math you would have to make $40 an hour to produce the income required by many landlords. Now add child care, transportation costs, payroll taxes—the overwhelming challenges facing people are obvious.

Fortunately, St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church has been working on transitional housing, which would be a beginning.

“Episcopal church is an inclusive and open church. Our theology is more open in receiving LGBTQ, same sex marriage and divorce and remarried persons. A lot of people coming from other denominations often end up in the Episcopal Church. We make sure marginalized people have a place of belonging where they feel safe,” Mertz said.

Mertz and the members of the church have been looking at how they can help the community. Recently, they applied for and received a grant from the Pennsylvania Crime and Delinquency Commission, with the help of State Senator Carolyn Comitta, in the amount of $150,000.

“Senator Comitta alerted us that a grant was available. It is for safety and security for non-profits, to secure your space so the minister and congregation will be safe,” Mertz explained. “We are constructing our first entry space to be a gathering space that will be equipped with an acoustical audio loop for the hearing impaired. People can have meetings there but it will also double as a security measure to keep us away from those wishing to do us harm.”

She added,  “This will be open to the community itself, not just for our parishioners. We are planning to turn back a portion of our lawn into a meadow where we can teach people about nature.

Mertz said that they also plan to build a columbarium and a labyrinth where people can walk. 

“We want a real engagement with the community and are opening each part of the church grounds for community use,” she said. “The house that currently sits there hasn’t been used for 20 years. That is where we plan to have the transitional housing, not a homeless shelter, but a place for people to live while they are transitioning into housing. We don’t have members that can run it, so we are hoping that a group like the Good Samaritan will be able to do that.”

She explained that that group empowers people to move from a housing crisis to stability. Their mission is to respond with compassion to the challenges of poverty-related needs across Lancaster and Chester counties. They take a personalized approach to empower individuals and families to prevent or overcome homelessness.

“We invited the community to give us input on what they thought the needs were in the community,” she explained. “That is where the idea for transitional housing blossomed. Families would stay in the house while working toward their own home. We are hopeful we can find the group that will run that for us.”

The church is currently working with an architect to reconfigure their office building to be used by the community in some capacity. They are seeking a partner that could utilize that space as well.

“This is a work in progress,” Mertz said. “We are not there yet, but we are working hard to find someone interested in running a transitional housing program. I don’t think anyone would argue that affordable housing is needed. We are waiting to see what the next step is for us. I invite people to call us for more information or to be a part of this. My phone number is 502-489-1337. I hope you call.”