Homelessness and housing insecurity might not be visible in Lebanon County, but they are prevalent. According to a recent needs assessment report by the United Way, nearly 29 percent of county residents find themselves in unaffordable housing scenarios. Within the city limits, that number increases to 39 percent.
Lebanon County Christian Ministries, a community-based non-profit organization, is working to address those housing needs.
Located in a former factory just a few blocks from downtown, LCCM began in the 1980s by offering free lunches in the wake of the city’s steel mill closure. Since then, the ministry has evolved into a bastion for people in need of food, clothing and shelter.
LCCM’s facility regularly distributes basic necessities from its sizeable food pantry and clothing bank. Its FRESH Start Emergency Shelter serves families and individuals facing a housing crisis, with off-site overnight housing and an in-house resource center with computer access, laundry facilities and a fully-functioning kitchen.
“Sometimes it’s difficult for communities to recognize or admit that there is homelessness. In Lebanon County, homelessness doesn’t look like it does in big cities. People aren’t sleeping on park benches or on the sidewalk. But we know that housing security is a significant need in our community, and that individuals are going from couch to couch or family to family on a survival basis,” said Bryan Smith, Executive Director of Lebanon County Christian Ministries.
LCCM’s FRESH Start Emergency Shelter serves more than 120 individuals annually, providing more than 4,000 nights of shelter, Smith said. Half of its clients are under the age of 18, representing children in family units.
The ministry’s traditional shelter model was a congregational one – in both the numerical and religious sense of the word.
Prior to the COVID pandemic, local church communities housed the shelter in two-week increments, providing a social hall or other large gathering place for men, women and children to sleep overnight.
Following HUD recommendations in favor of non-congregational settings due to the pandemic, LCCM partnered with a local hotel to shelter clients overnight. The ministry has been utilizing this model since March.
“It’s an entirely different atmosphere for us as an organization and from a case management perspective. Where we had seen our guests every day, we now were scheduling days to have them report here so we could have them utilize our resources, such as the kitchen to prepare food, and to do their laundry,” Smith said. “It took us time to adjust to that, but we’re still able to do case management and we’re still able to create achievable goals for our guests. They’re getting jobs, they’re saving money. The biggest obstacle now is finding housing.”
In Lebanon County, the affordable housing need outpaces the affordable housing availability, he said.
This year, Lebanon County Christian Ministries is among 32 parish-supported ministries to receive a grant from the Diocese’s annual Matthew 25 Collection. The collection, which will take place the weekend of Nov. 22, supports efforts that provide food, clothing and shelter to people in our communities.
Seventy-five percent of the money contributed to the Matthew 25 Collection is distributed through grants to parish-supported ministries. Twenty-five percent of the collection is given back to the parishes for their support of people in need.
St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Annville supported LCCM’s grant application for this year’s distribution of funds.
“The Matthew 25 grant is an opportunity and blessing for us. We talk about many different blessings. We’re blessed with the many different positive outcomes of those we serve, we’re blessed with financial resources, we’re blessed with volunteers,” Smith said.
“When we received the Matthew 25 grant earlier this year, we didn’t expect our expenses in the shelter to look like they do today. We were faced with something we had never expected with COVID; all of a sudden our expenses really began to grow with putting our clients into hotels,” he said. “I don’t know where we would be if it wasn’t for grants like Matthew 25.”
“Since March, we have spent more than $100,000 on hotel space. We don’t know when that will end. Our next initiative is looking at how our shelter will operate long term. The Matthew 25 grant has allowed us to survive and provide for our community this year,” he said.
Manuel Hierros came to Lebanon County Christian Ministries more than a year ago, seeking help for himself and his son.
Heirros moved to Lebanon several years ago from New York, with a criminal background, a history of drug use, and no job. Eventually, he found himself homeless.
“It can be difficult to seek help. At first, I was hesitant to ask, but I knew I had to for myself and my son,” Hierros said. “As soon as I came here [to LCCM] I met Miss Amanda, my caseworker, and the people here were very good to me.”
Today, Hierros is drug-free. He’s been employed as a custodian for the past nine months, and is advancing to a maintenance position in the near future. His son is doing well in school, thanks in part to LCCM’s resource center, which provides computer access and some homework help.
On Dec. 1, Heirros and his son will move into their own place.
“If it wouldn’t have been for this place, I would be back in New York and back to my old ways,” Heirros said.
“Without them, I wouldn’t be here, working a job and ready to move into my own place. I’m thankful for them pushing me,” he said.
Heirros is one of many success stories of Lebanon County Christian Ministries. The caseworkers find themselves invested in the lives of the people they serve, regardless of outcomes.
“Relationships are so important to us, and we find that many of our guests are lacking in positive social environments,” Smith said. “What we’re always trying to achieve is that social piece outside of the shelter. To do that, we have to relate with them. We have to understand where they are, where we want them to go.”
“Their successes are our team’s successes, and their failures are our team’s failures,” he added.” “There is a sense of joy and excitement when a positive scenario plays out, but we also have disappointment when a guest leaves earlier than we want them to and we know that they’re not able to really assimilate to where they need to be.”
“We’ve been blessed as a ministry to have staff members who are able to lead as an example in a Christ-like way,” Smith said. “As a community, we need to lift up those folks who are struggling with poverty and homelessness. When our guests come to us, our goal is that they become strong, confident, quality individuals in our community.”
(This year’s Matthew 25 Collection will take place in parishes the weekend of Nov. 22. Visit www.hbgdiocese.org/m25 for information on how you can help support these local ministries.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness