Lehigh Valley’s first year-round homeless shelter in Bethlehem, with 50-70 single rooms
Bethlehem City Council and the public got their first glimpse Tuesday night of the city’s strategic plan, in the works since March, to tackle homelessness.
At the heart of the plan is the first year-round homeless shelter in the Lehigh Valley, planned with 50 to 70 single rooms, four family units and 10 emergency beds for worshippers. It is projected as a multi-million dollar investment, with hundreds of thousands in annual operating and maintenance costs.
“At this time, the city of Bethlehem is ready to scale up and respond to regional needs,” Sara Satullo, the city’s deputy director of community development, told the council as she helped present the plan, calling it a “major game changer.” compared to simply satisfying the bare needs of the community”. shelter needs to a holistic and comprehensive approach.
“Homelessness and housing insecurity are pressing issues that require action,” she continued. “We believe we have a moral obligation to ensure that none of our unprotected neighbors die from exposure to the cold. This is the bare minimum we should be providing our fellow citizens.
In March, the city hired consultant Michael Baker International for $84,690 to develop the homelessness plan and study the potential for a year-round shelter. Since then, work has included a regional roundtable in July and interviews with 107 people at homeless service providers in the region.
In Lehigh and Northampton counties, the effort identified 746 households in need of homelessness prevention services and 1,086 households enrolled in drop-in centers and services.
The backdrop to the Lehigh Valley homelessness problem is a 52% increase in average home sale prices and a 57% increase in rent for a one-bedroom apartment, statistics shared Tuesday night show. . The Lehigh Valley Planning Commission reports a shortage of 14,480 homes in the two counties for households earning less than $25,000 a year, coupled with figures from the Pennsylvania Housing Alliance showing eviction rates in 2021 of 9.5% in Lehigh County and 5.6% in Northampton County. It’s a situation exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, said Laura Collins, the city’s director of community and economic development.
“We know that three in 10 households are now overburdened with costs, keeping more people away from an emergency or unexpected financial situation,” she said.
Each of the individual rooms would have its own toilet and sink, in addition to family units and congregational beds. The 24/7 shelter would also offer single-cabin showers, laundry facilities, a commercial kitchen, full-size lockers, a day center and satellite office space for miscellaneous service providers with a physical location for a coordinated admissions system.
“While components of what you see here exist in the Lehigh Valley, nothing like it exists holistically,” said Hannah Clark, who is based in Allentown and works with the Bethlehem consultant. “Bethlehem would be the first location where a non-congregational emergency shelter would be built and would be available to people throughout the Lehigh Valley.”
Cost estimates for a range of options to open the shelter, including acquiring a site to be determined, range from $4.7 million to rehabilitating an existing hotel/motel; $5.4 million to rehabilitate commercial/retail space; just under $6 million for new construction to $7.4 million for the rehabilitation of an existing community building.
Annual operating costs are estimated to be around $10,000 per bed, or between around $500,000 and just over $700,000 for the size of shelter being considered.
The city is reportedly seeking U.S. housing and urban development funding for its operations, and is also awaiting city council approval to draw $1.4 million from the 2023 city budget from federal HOME and American Rescue Plan Act money. to initiate the effort. A public hearing is scheduled to consider this initial investment at 7 p.m. on November 1 before council at City Hall, 10 E. Church St.
Public comments on Tuesday night’s review before the council’s Community and Economic Development Committee included a commitment from Bethlehem NAACP President Esther Lee to remain involved in the effort and gratitude from the Reverend Lindsey Altvater Clifton to the First Presbyterian Church on Center Street.
Downtown resident Bruce Haines expressed concern that the homelessness problem in the Lehigh Valley is far greater than even the data suggests, and that this type of settlement could attract homeless people from afar.
“It seems to me like it’s kind of a construction and they will come,” he said.
Mayor J. William Reynolds retorted, “We’re not both trying to fix the problem for everyone, but we’re trying to define this as a problem that affects everyone and affects everyone. everyone in the Lehigh Valley.”
In the coming weeks, Bethlehem officials plan to post the strategic plan on the city’s website, bethlehem-pa.gov.
Councilor Grace Crampsie Smith said on Tuesday evening that she would like to see more Bethlehem-specific data on homelessness, and Councilor Paige Van Wirt, a doctor, called for securing space in the shelter for medical care. . Councilors Kiera Wilhelm and Hillary Kwiatek said they see the shelter as helping to solve the problem of those in need of housing.
“We need a place where people can be treated with dignity, have some privacy, and then have access to the continuum of care — to people who can help them find transitional housing,” Kwiatem said.
Tuesday night’s meeting was streamed live and available on YouTube.
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Kurt Bresswein can be reached at [email protected].