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York Co. group offers shelter organizers guidance

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By Johnathan Ryan

The Interfaith Hospitality Network of shelters in York County has been helping the working poor with children for nine years.

Now that some Lancaster County churches are trying to organize a network of homeless shelters, they're looking to the York County group for guidance.

"We're proud to support Lancaster County," said Jennifer Coye, executive director of the Interfaith Hospitality Network in York County. "We've come down there to the community meetings to talk about how things work here."

Bill Hutchinson, who's been spearheading the effort to start the homeless shelter network here, appreciates the help he's received from the York County group.

They've been influential, Hutchinson said.

"They've had a very strong advisory capacity," he said.

Hutchinson first learned of the York County program when reading an article in a Rock Hill newspaper a few years ago.

York County program

The York County program can shelter up to four families - or 14 people - at one time at a host church.

In 2007, 15 different families consisting of 44 individuals were sheltered by the York County program, with an average 73-day stay. More than half of those who stayed in the shelters were under 6, Coye said.

She said people find the services through the Department of Social Services, churches, the school district and other agencies.

"We don't go out and find people," she said.

Coye said many people become homeless due to poor financial practices, exacerbated by an unforeseen crisis, such as losing a job.

People may stay in the shelters as long as they need to become self-sufficient again, she said. But while in shelters, residents work toward goals outlined in contracts created between them and Coye, and a case manager.

Unemployed adults who stay in the shelters focus on getting a job with the help of day-center workers and other agencies. If adults have a job, the focus is to help them save money to start out again and pay outstanding bills, such as a power bill.

"We prioritize those bills that need to be cleared up quickly to be self-sufficient," Coye said.

The core element of a thriving shelter program is a good screening process for applicants, Coye said.

A qualifying family would not have members who use alcohol or drugs, which is verified with screenings. They'd also have reasonably clean criminal background checks and meet U.S. Housing of Urban and Development standards for homelessness.

The York County program has the freedom to establish criteria to suit its preferences for accepting or denying a family, with basic requirements coming from Interfaith Hospitality Network's national headquarters in New Jersey.

If there is no space available for a qualifying family, or if a disqualified family has problems to be dealt with, Coye refers them to other agencies or programs in the area that can address the specific situations.

"This is a very volunteer-intensive endeavor," said the Rev. Jeff Lingle of Epiphany Lutheran Church in Rock Hill. He has been involved since the network's organizational phase in the mid-1990s.

Lingle said he's never had trouble at Epiphany Lutheran with shelter residents.

Goal is to start shelter here in '09

Hutchinson said six Lancaster County churches have agreed to participate in the shelter network here. A few other churches are still considering joining the network.

The ideal is to at least have 13 commitments to start the shelter network here by 2009.

Local organizers are working on the network's articles of incorporation and will soon seek tax-exempt status from the federal government. After that, an intense fundraising effort will start.

All networks are self-supporting, getting financial and material donations from public and private sources. Hutchinson has said local organizers will strongly seek grants.

Funds are needed to pay for day-to-day operations of the shelters and a day center, which is now slated to be a vacant Arch Street building owned by First Baptist Church of Lancaster, one of the host churches. Funds are also needed to pay the salary of an executive director for the program here.

Hutchinson is hopeful the program here will be a success.

"It won't be a perfect solution," he said. "But every little bit helps in fighting homelessness."

Contact Johnathan Ryan at 416-8416 or jryan@thelancasternews.com