Shelters expect surge this winter

The Haven manager Mike Clawson, above, enters the building that houses homeless men in Rock Hill.

(Melissa Cherry • mcherry@heraldonline.com)
The Haven manager Mike Clawson, above, enters the building that houses homeless men in Rock Hill. (Melissa Cherry • mcherry@heraldonline.com)

Homeless shelters in York County are bracing for a difficult winter as more people lose jobs and run out of money amid the troubled economic times.

Over a dinner of baked beans and buttered bread at The Haven one night last week, Bobby Tharp gave voice to a struggle shared by many.

Tharp used to find work through Labor Ready, a place where men can go in the mornings to get one-day jobs, mostly in construction.

"I didn't lose my job. They just don't have any work," he said. "What we do is based on building. When the economy hits bottom, nobody's building anything."

This is what homelessness in Rock Hill looked like inside The Haven, a 14-bed shelter that opened almost three years ago off Heckle Boulevard on the city's south side. Local advocates plan to draw attention to this problem this week with special events during National Hunger and Homeless Awareness Week.

"We've pretty much stayed full since about the first of August," said The Haven's resident manager Mike Clawson. "They've been evicted. They've lost their jobs. Some of them, they couldn't keep paying their family members to live with them."

Shelters across York County expect a surge in demand as the weather turns colder and more people face the prospect of evictions and home foreclosures. Signs of trouble are already emerging:

• In September, 346 people called the county's 2-1-1 social services hotline for help with food and housing costs, up from 153 people in the same month last year.

• Through the first three months of the school year, district officials have identified 147 students as homeless, compared to 246 students in all of last year, according to figures from the United Way of York County.

• In September, 126 people were turned away from Pilgrim's Inn, a shelter and transitional apartment center for women and children. That's up from 106 the month before. The shelter is now at capacity, and 61 people were turned away through the first two weeks of October.

The uptick mirrors national trends. Each of the nation's 12 largest cities has seen jumps in the number of families in need of shelter, USA Today found in a recent survey.

What's different here and elsewhere is that many are homeless for the first time, unfamiliar with how to apply for food stamps and locate aid agencies best-suited to help.

"They literally have the deer in the headlights sort of look when they get there," said Lora Holladay, homeless services coordinator for the United Way of York County. "They're in shock. They're embarrassed having to ask for help when they've never had to before."

In terms of men, the slowdown in the housing market is largely to blame. Many men were once able to find work as day laborers, painting or doing odd jobs for contractors.

With home construction at a virtual standstill, that option has dried up. New housing starts in York County are down by almost half from just two years ago.

At The Haven last week, men said jobs in carpentry, electrical work and painting have all but disappeared. Stephen Hughes said he found some work as a Salvation Army bell ringer, but the job doesn't start until after Christmas.

"I lost my place in the apartment," he said. "I couldn't pay the rent."

But a growing number of women and children are also threatened. Families can no longer afford to buy even the most basic appliances, said Jennifer Coye, director of the Interfaith Hospitality Network, which coordinates churches in providing meals, shelter and life skills training.

"People don't have the money to replace it if their washing machine breaks, if their stove won't work," she said. "They're having to see if there's something available for free."

Well past that point, families show up at the door to Pilgrim's Inn, the shelter and apartment complex on East Main Street. Social worker Angela Miller said those homeless for the first time are easy to detect.

"I can almost tell before even asking," Miller said. "They are truly in immediate meltdown crisis. I really have to hold their hand and walk with them. We're starting to see more and more of the new homeless."