Homelessness appears to be on the decrease in Bucks County, but more people are seeking assistance with what county calls a “homelessness crisis.”
On January 29, the county and partners conducted a federally-mandated point-in-time count during the day and night. The survey involved county staff and 25 community volunteers who spread out from the lower end to the upper end.
Bucks County Department of Housing Services Director Jeffrey Fields presented the preliminary results to the Bucks County Commissioners at their meeting at the Administration Building in Doylestown Borough on Wednesday.
The county reported a 7 percent decrease in persons experiencing homelessness from last year. There were 333 people, including 121 kids, experiencing homelessness in the county, data showed.
Looking at the 333 people dealing with being homeless, 46 of the people were sleeping in temporary Code Blue shelters for the night, 30 were residing outside or other places not intended for habitation, and 257 were sleeping in emergency shelters, transitional housing units, or hotels and motels covered by nonprofit or other groups.
The county attributed the decrease in homelessness to a number of factors:
- Increased coordination among all providers of homeless services to ensure the most vulnerable households receive assistance.
- Flexible Funding to implement best practices that assist households in avoiding becoming homeless or to quickly exit homelessness.
- The addition of dedicated Street Outreach workers to engage with and connect unsheltered homeless persons to housing programs and other needed supports; and
- Creating Housing Locator positions to help high-barrier families and individuals more quickly locate safe and affordable housing.
- Additional staffing for the Housing Link Call Center, Case Management to work with families experiencing homelessness, and increased funds for rental assistance.
“Bucks County has identified the resources, roles and routes necessary to move people into housing,” Diane Ellis-Marseglia, chairperson of the Bucks County Commissioners, said. “We should see numbers continue tracking downward. This will allow us to focus efforts on increasing affordable housing throughout the county.”
Progress has been made, but county officials noted that calls to the Bucks County Housing Link grew by 10 percent from 2018 to 2019.
“There is positivity but there remains a lot of work to be done,” Fields said. “I don’t want to paint too rosy of a picture because ultimately we need the number to be zero.”
One major challenge in the county is affordable housing. Nonprofit and county officials have noted over the years that availability of temporary housing and affordable rental units is limited.
Data from the National Low-Income Housing Coalition in 2018 showed the average person needs to earn $24.35 an hour to afford a two-bedroom housing unit in the county at fair market rate, while the average renter earned $13.26 per hour. The report concluded that no one earning minimum wage at a full-time job could afford housing the county by themselves.
The county will never be able to end homelessness, but having programs to get people back on their feet quickly is important, Fields said.
Housing Locators working to help those who contact the Bucks County Housing Link aided 89 families locating housing and 97 percent did not return to homelessness.
Fields said more help is needed for homeless residents who are disabled, while he noted assistance for domestic violence and human trafficking victims has increased.
The county relayed the following story from a participant in the effort to high homelessness:
David lived in his van for two years. He began to work with the Bucks County Opportunity Council (BCOC) Street Outreach team after fainting at BCOC’s Bristol Fresh Connect site, which that provides fresh fruits and vegetables to those in need.
Before becoming homeless, David worked in electronics for 20 years and owned a landscaping business for 10 years before suffering an injury. He never had drug or alcohol issues, but has struggled with depression throughout his life.
Like many who are homeless, David also contended with poor diet and the resulting health issues that can cause. Since connecting with BCOC, David has found full-time employment with the help of the Bucks County Career Link and has been enrolled in BCOC’s Wheelz to Work program to obtain reliable transportation. The Housing Locators assisted David with finding an apartment and he moved into his own unit on Jan. 1, after almost three years of street homelessness.
“When we talk about ending homelessness, it’s not a matter of never having an episode of homelessness ever occur.” Fields said. “The key is that we help people to quickly end the episode of homelessness and move back into permanent housing, and we’ve had a lot of success with that.”
Fields said landlords interested in getting more details on renting to housing program participants can contact officials at 215-589-5773.
Although point-in-time counts are mandated and data is reported to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, concerns have been raised of the counts and how accurate they really may be.
County officials said programs to decrease homelessness were funded by through Pennsylvania Housing Affordability and Rehabilitation Enhancement Fund (PHARE), which is administered by the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (PHFA), and the Home4Good Program through the Federal Home Loan Bank of Pittsburgh, Customers Bank, Fidelity Savings of Bucks County, and QNB Bank.
The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty over the years has singled out what it sees as problems with the methodology, concerns that the definitions of homelessness is too narrow, and discrepancies with data on homeless kids from the U.S. Department of Education.