As evidenced by the late October snowfall, we're about to enter a bitterly cold and snowy winter. While it's inconvenient and dreary for many of us, for some people freezing temperatures and precipitation can become a threat to survival. Allegheny County's Emergency weather shelters, typically open when temperatures drop to under 25 degrees, are preparing for the season.
The face of homelessness is changing in the county, though. The people going into the shelters and seeking services more and more often are younger.
"For Bethlehem Haven we've seen an increase within the last fiscal year alone, since July, probably about 25 percent of our shelter population in this age range 18 to 25, which is a big increase for us, because last year we didn't see this many young people coming in the shelter," said Denetta Benjamin, the clinical Director at Bethlehem Haven, an Uptown women's shelter.
It's not just an increase at their shelter — it's throughout the city and the region. Linda Sheets at Operation Safety Net, which runs an emergency weather shelter, said she was "alarmed" when, two years ago, younger people started showing up at their shelter. They typically didn't see people in that age range. Then last year, the number nearly doubled.
According to data from the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, the percentage of homeless who are between the ages of 18 and 25 has steadily increased from 0.1% in 2002 to 24.7% in 2011. It's a trend nationally as well.
There are many factors: the economy is bad, people aren't able to find jobs that pay a living wage. It is forcing some young adults to move back in with their parents or just not move out at all. Many of the youth served in shelters in the area have aged out of the foster care system. They don't have a built-in support system.
Chuck Keenan, the county's housing coordinator, says that the numbers of people the county serves has increased as the economy has shot downward.
A few years ago they launched the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Rehousing Program with federal stimulus money, which aims to keep people teetering on homelesness from ending up there.
"HPRR is a federal stimulus program started in 2009. It's a 3-year program, total. It's actually about to end in the next 3 months. What it does is, it helps people who are at the risk of homelessness who might be facing an eviction, they might be living with someone on their couch, we call 'doubled up' or 'couch-surfing.' We work with them to get them a new place. We've seen a large amount of people in between 18 and 25 accessing that program," he said.
That $15 million stimulus program has served approximately 5,000 families in the county.
The idea was that when the money for the program had run out, the economy would have picked up, but it hasn't. And with cuts coming from the state — between three and ten percent less every year over the last few years — they might have even less than they did when the program first started. It's leaving providers struggling to figure out how they will do more with less in an economy that shows no indication of picking up.